So does the Leicester Thing mean anything for other sports? Does the shockingly beautiful but relentless surge that carried the Tinker Man’s team through transfer elsewhere? Of course it does.
Not because there’s some template here, that Ranieri has demystified. Not because the ‘reversion’ to simple qualities of honest work and togetherness explains everything in a way we can cart across to cricket or rugby.
This is not boxes being ticked so much as people (players) being transformed or galvanised together. And fans from all over – from outside footie, too – have loved or bought into the excitement around that; it’s felt refreshing, uplifting; it’s revalidated that wonderful but tarnished word ‘game’.
In our different way we get that the Leicester gaffer’s gathered and intuited together a powerfully more-than-the-sum-of-it’s-parts blend which has (rather than being one-dimensional but hellish durable) outrun, out-competed and often swamped the opposition in a flood of complex, focussed, inviolable energy.
There’s nothing simple about this except the sense that Ranieri’s absolutely nailed something – something like Peak Manager – in this remarkable process.
We have to be careful we don’t patronise his personal achievement whilst deconstructing events most commonly described as ‘unbelievable.’ We’d all concede that theoretically Leicester City have no right to win a Premier League; not in the era of oil sheiks and unthinkable piles of monopoly money – both of which they plainly lack. Let’s mark, then, the fact that Ranieri has done something truly rare; sustained a run from nowhere over an entire season.
Even those with a rare eye for talent would not have recognised Champions in their pre-season squad photo. Mahrez, Vardy and maybe Okazaki constitute the fellas high-profile clubs might have coveted in August. (I’ve just flicked through their ‘roster’ and recommend you do the same should you think this a significant underestimation of their star quality. We may argue on this but the central point seems reasonable; that Leicester have done something incredible, given their resources on all fronts.)
What factors have been key, then, really?
Broadly Ranieri has set his side up to play brisk footie at a highish tempo. They dare to exemplify the old virtues of teamwork and solidity within a four-four-two framework and defensively unashamedly challenge convention by fielding stoppers – blokes who can head and clout things and who dream not of overlapping charges nor cultured forward interventions.
Forward of the Huth-men, they’re quick, tough and mobile and in the case of Mahrez in particular, precociously gifted. But they are not Real Madrid. They are spectacularly galactico-free, in fact.
So there is romance in their relative plainness? Maybe.
The Leicester City defence have been like something out of a 1970’s comic. Or a movie where giants wade out of the sea. They hold and shove; they are intimidatingly ‘physical’. They make that statement.
How much of this is policy and how much the ‘nature’ of the individuals I leave to you. But if it’s been their achilles heel in terms of popularity, not so re- results; it’s been a key part of the winning bundle.
Some can’t quite get past the idea that this is a freakishly poor quality season, with Man Utd, Arsenal, City and Chelsea all caught somewhere between underachievement and raw embarrassment. And that by implication This Was The Year when summatz daft might happen. Others have just got on with enjoying Leicester’s success.
Whatever our view of the tactical masterstrokes (or flukes), the philosophical undercurrent(s) or the uniqueness or otherwise of the Leicester Phenomena, we all seem drawn to a single essence. It’s about spirit. They bristle with it… and most of us rate that.
But where does that come from? (Because maybe this is transferable, or applicable to other team sports – maybe to all?!?) How do you get that stuff to work… like this?
The gaffer sets the tone. At all levels. The manager or coach is a presence – a force or a vacuum, maybe. This presence may be expressed in the classically Churchillian way, through brilliant, inspirational, possibly ‘set-piece’ speechifying or it may be through by a sort of incremental handing over of responsibility or leadership to key individuals. Or some of both. In either case it is pretty close to critical that the manager is believed – respected.
Unsurprisingly, I think it’s likely that Ranieri has provided both inspiration and inspired delegation/organisation. He may appear likably quirky but he is shrewd and demanding and tough. He is The Boss. He can cuddle and charm but he can deliver a serious bollocking.
I’ve been in dressing-rooms where I felt ten feet tall post the team-talk. I’ve been in dressing-rooms where we all felt embarrassed for the manager’s lack of weight; where the obvious irrelevance of the leader’s opinions was a rank embarrassment. He was lost, as was the room. Fatal.
Coaching at every level is the art of understanding and knowing your players. Getting into their heads; maximising their efficiency as a group by maximising their belief and their contributions as individuals. Finding different ways to motivate different humans. The efficacy of all tactical and strategic plans is contingent upon this relationship, this galaxy of relationships, driven and directed by the coach.
This does not mean the coach has be an orator par excellence – although he or she needs to be able to command the space. Pithy can be perfect.
During the Rugby World Cup, Graham Henry wrote brilliantly and fascinatingly on how he learned to withdraw his ego from coaching. How he latterly grew big enough to embed virtually all the motivation and the tactical decision-making within the team. His All Blacks evolved into a group that practically ran itself – once the cultural stuff had been coached or understood.
Extraordinarily, Henry barely spoke during the allegedly critical minutes before a match. His players knew where they were at and simply did not need further input from him. The work had been done, over months, years before and specific plans for specific opponents addressed during the preceding week or so. So the coach just shut the **** up. For me this is right up there with diving through a crowd to score knowing your going to get your head kicked in.
Ranieri may not have been at Leicester long enough to embed that amount of strength into the team. But he has clearly done something magnificent – something which is his.
Leicester City have chased and harried and out-passed and outwitted the Premier League. We watch their fabulously collective energy and we recognise something powerful and cheering for the game – maybe for all games? Sure it’s something to do with our love of the underdog and our revulsion towards Big Money but none of this need undermine our enjoyment, or the sensation that (dinglydong!) our faith may yet be restored.
Bravo, Claudio!! And thank you.