Sport in England has been shaken the last few weeks, and at last it’s for really positive reasons… Leicester City FC. Nobody would believe it, and until it was mathematically clinched two weeks ago they didn’t. An unlikely story… a team who were written off as 5000/1 shots, who went on to win the English Premier League, leap-frogging the country’s elite in the process.
A good old romantic sports fairytale of David overcoming Goliath. But fairytale it is not — Leicester have achieved amazing success through embracing technology and research, and applying it in logical manner.
Living ten minutes away, I’ve had the privilege to watch their development over the last few years, and having close friend or two over at Leicester, I thought I’d give my take on their miraculous achievement.
A prepared backroom
I’ve heard first hand that the club really came together after a loss in the Play-Off semi-final against Watford in 2013. The club had a lot of the pieces of the jigsaw in place that season and went close to promotion to the EPL. They would ultimately fall short after they had a penalty saved at Watford but what happened in the days after would shape the approach of their backroom for seasons to come.
The then manager, Nigel Pearson, invited his backroom staff to his house in the Lake District to bond. Far from relaxing, they set about restructuring how they would work and communicate as a group. The outcome was to have sports scientists, coaches and physios all working together in decisions on training and match-days.
An integrated approach was created to see each section head have a direct influence on player loading.
They use GPS data to inform their decisions — running distance of their players, intensity level, directional changes and speeds. They are able to decipher, that generally, City play in large areas to allow for their players to reach maximum speed — they have scored the most goals in the Premier League on the counter-attack. Players not starting are coached to run more in training, if certain sessions are geared to heavier running for specific positions, the players missing out do additional sessions.
Their goal has been to keep their best players available to the manager for the maximum amount of time. Given their size of the squad this has been crucial. They have used less players than any other side in the league and also had the least injuries. They prepare in detail, using technology such as NordBord to improve and measure hamstring strength, they prepare well.
Culture & technology
As a player you could be forgiven for describing Nigel Pearson as a no-nonsense old school centre half. But as a manager, much like I saw Sam Allardyce implement at Bolton, he embraced new technologies and explored research studies to gain an edge.
Pearson introduced a technical scouting department who don’t rely on the old football cliche of an old man in a beige coat, who arrives late and leaves early to avoid traffic, to make decisions on who they sign. Instead they look at statistics throughout a players’ career mapped against their value. The likes of Riyad Mahrez weren’t just chance signings on the cheap. They were well-calculated decisions, supplemented by traditional scouting techniques.
It isn’t just on the field where Leicester excelled. They set a culture and let go waves of players who did not fall into line with their approach, work-ethic and standards. I watched in amazement as these same players were picked up by fellow Championship clubs who saw them as good level signings on the cheap, but to be frank, culture at City is a priority and a team was shaped that believed in it.
The high standards in culture were embraced by Leicester’s owners, and despite survival in the Premier League under Pearson, he fell to those standards when his son hit the tabloids.
Enter Claudio Ranieri. Remembered fondly in English football for his successes at Chelsea. He himself had never won a league title. But what he has in abundance is experience at the very highest level.
Having been announced last summer, I headed down to a local pre-season fixture between Leicester’s Under 21 side and non-league Loughborough Dynamo. Sure enough, one of Ranieri’s first concerns was to attend a pre-season youth game of football. He spoke with local fans and watched avidly as young players such as Joe Dodoo performed, he would later give Dodoo his first team debut. It was a sure signal that the culture established under Pearson would continue under his regime.
I hear one of his first actions was to put up a photograph of every other Premier League manager in his office — to make them feel welcome — another sign of the environment developed.
Ranieri would limit the adjustments in his backroom staff and player changes on the field. The Italian brought three of his own staff with him but notably kept Steve Walsh as head of recruitment, Craig Shakespeare as his assistant and a good friend of mine, Matt Reeves as head of fitness and conditioning. I first met Matt at Loughborough University where he had arrived in the football programme having played alongside Chris Smalling (now at Manchester United & England) at centre-half at both Maidstone & Fulham. Chris had actually applied to the Sports Science course that Matt would graduate with a first from. He is an outstanding individual, bright and detailed in approach, I have no doubt of the impact that he has made there.
Far from being the Tinkerman he was renowned for at Chelsea, Ranieri would be able to find that winning formula on the pitch by complementing the high-level of staff off it that had served Pearson so well.
I’d call it sports science rather than rocket science! Let’s face it Leicester have a goal-scorer in Vardy, important for any team at the very top, having worked with Francesco Totti & Gabriel Batistuta, I have no doubt Ranieri had an impact there.
Leicester have great width through two quality wingers in Mahrez and Schlupp to supply the ammunition for the likes of Vardy. They have a ball winner in N’Golo Kanté that people compare to Keane, Toure and Viera (for me Ranieri’s best addition).
A solid back-four including an experienced centre-half in Wes Morgan, and behind them a goalkeeper called Schmeichel! Sounds familiar to me!
On top of that traditional footballing dynamic — they have a support team, an openness to technology, and an internal culture — all essential in a successful performance environment.