Taking off his fittingly-chic glasses to wipe away the tears, Claudio Ranieri walked down the tunnel at the Stadium of Light, knowing that his side would be playing in the Champions League next season and were but a few victories away from being crowned Premier League champions. What a pleasure it has been to watch Leicester this season.
Propping up this ascendancy has been the team’s 63 goals. Scenes of Jamie Vardy spinning off in celebration have become commonplace. From flicks around the corner to thudding strikes from 30-yards out, everything he hits seems to perfectly place itself just beyond a goalkeeper’s reach. Having already clinched the record for scoring in the highest number of consecutive games, the dizzying heights of his season took him to Berlin, where he crucially scored against England’s famous rivals. Remember to pinch yourself, Mr. Vardy.
Complementing Vardy’s 22 goals with 17 of his own, Riyad Mahrez has amazed pundits and opponents alike with his daring and fearless play which ensured he became the first African to be awarded PFA Player of the Year. Defined by his pace, his inch-perfect touch and seemingly weightless feet allow him to glide past opponents with the simple drop of a shoulder. As long as he remains in the side, Leicester will play with abundant flair and swagger.
At the opposite end of the pitch, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are Leicester’s sturdy bodyguards. Goading their opponents and bullying them off the ball, their stuttering careers have been revived after keeping the prolific likes of Harry Kane and Diego Costa away from their goal. Importantly, the agility of Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson provide the two centre-backs with ample cover when hampered by their lack of pace. Compact and up for every battle, this back four are responsible for some of Leicester’s most impressive victories.
But of greater importance is the spirit and conviction that intoxicate the entire team. Each player is driven by a resolute determination and walks onto the pitch ready to compete for every ball, every header, and every inch of the field.
They are the Premier League’s Atletico Madrid; when they are not snipping at an opponent’s heels, they are throwing themselves heart-first into every challenge or using four-letter words to get inside someone’s head. One word best describes this team – character.
This tenacity has served the Foxes well all season. Of the team’s 21 victories, 14 have been by a margin of just one goal; a testament to the team’s ability to compete, as well as play, their opponents off the pitch. Crucially, it explains how such a mediocre squad has reached the top of the table. Why else would Vardy attempt a first-time volley from 30 yards away against Liverpool? It worked for Ferguson in his last season and Mourinho with Porto, and now seems to be working for Leicester; a team fuelled by spirit allows the ordinary player to achieve extraordinary feats.
The story is all the more spectacular when you consider Leicester were staring relegation in the face just 12 months ago. Their survival offers an explanation for the success of this year’s campaign. With half of their total victories coming in the final eight games of last season, it seems Nigel Pearson’s tactics to counter relegation laid much of groundwork for Leicester success this season. Every Leicester game this season has felt like a battle for survival and so Ranieri’s success can be said to be not in inspiring a squad, but in maintaining and perfecting the determination that saved them from the drop.
The Premier League has lacked real character in recent years. With prima donna players dictating things, the league has long been subject to the pet-projects of the world’s billionaires who boast more money than sense. Leicester’s season is a story of redemption, and could revive a league that is far from its best.