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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Ranieri won the Lotto at Leicester

Claudio Ranieri doesn't play a high line and commits his players to defending properly.
Claudio Ranieri doesn't play a high line and commits his players to defending properly.

The stars came into line in a spectacular way for Claudio Ranieri when he landed at Leicester but what he has achieved is as rare as winning the Lotto.

Some managers fit a club perfectly and some don't. It's an inexact science and there's a big punt involved every time an owner appoints a new man.

Ranieri suits Leicester, there can be no doubt about that. He's a nice man and has no conspicuous ego. But he also understands the game very well and made a huge call when he first took the job. He decided to do nothing.

Defending

It's not too difficult to analyse what Leicester do on the pitch. Ranieri doesn't play a high line and commits his players to defending properly.

He trusts them to play with the required levels of concentration you need to defend deep and he trusts them to play with the commitment you need to track men around the pitch and force the mistakes which players like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez thrive on.

The advantage of defending so deep is the space you create when there's an opposition mistake or a good block or tackle.

If you have a lad like Vardy who can move so fast, the space becomes a playground for a good striker, filled with back-pedalling defenders and an unprotected goalkeeper.

José Mourinho has won medals at every club he has managed with the same approach but it should be pointed out that it wasn't Ranieri's idea to play this way. He admitted in midweek that he had his own ideas when he first came to the job but quickly realised that he was managing a tight group with a well-formed collective identity.

Many managers would have failed at that moment. Many would have ploughed on and tried to impose their vision.

Often as not, a good manager can achieve a great deal by doing very little.

I have Bob Paisley in mind as a great example of that. He could never have done what Bill Shankly did but he was the perfect man to keep the ball rolling because he understood what was in front of him and didn't try to change anything at Anfield.

Many in Ranieri's shoes would have cursed stubborn players and lost the dressing room in the first few weeks,

But he was smart enough to see the legacy Nigel Pearson had left behind and didn't allow his own ego to get in the way of what was obviously a fantastic squad environment

That's the real the key to Leicester's wonderful and surprising title run. Ranieri took a measure of his players and rather than fix something that wasn't broken, set about encouraging them to enjoy what they were doing.

It's sounds so easy but football always is when things are going well. The complications only set in when things go wrong.

I can't emphasise enough how unusual it is for everything to go so well though. All that was needed to knock everything out of line was, for example, if Vardy took on airs and graces.

Nothing destroys a good team spirit quicker than when one lad puts himself above everyone else but Vardy is a late bloomer and a man who clearly appreciates what he has got. He could have given Ranieiri all sorts of problems if he messed around with his contract talks but he never hesitated. Leicester offered him a new deal and he accepted it.

I've no doubt he could have levered more from another club but the simple fact that he wanted to keep going at Leicester is very important evidence of how strong the bond is between Vardy and his team-mates.

It is very hard to resist the temptations dangled by agents and other clubs but I believe his bond with the other lads is so strong that he never even considered leaving.

Vardy's biggest helpers are N'Golo Kantó and Mahrez and they underline another facet of the Leicester's story which is significant and is not peculiar to Ranieiri's team.

By Premier League standards, these players were bargains and there are more like them now in the Premier League but not playing at the top clubs.

Value

The smaller clubs have worked hard to get value for money while the top clubs deal with mega-agents like Jorge Mendes and blow vast amounts on the Balotellis and Falcaos of this world.

There is no substitute for honesty or hunger in football and Leicester have an abundance of both.

Can they win the Premier League? Well I tipped them for relegation despite that astonishing escape engineered by Pearson in the last three weeks of the season.

I didn't see how they could recover when they lost Pearson in controversial circumstances and I didn't rate Ranieri at all.

I was totally wrong. They can win the Premier League because they have been the best team all season and by far the most consistent.

They are beating the teams a title challenger should be beating and also winning against their rivals. They have lost just twice.

That's why the fairytale continues.

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