When Leicester City recorded a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on 24 October last year, the Foxes squad was rewarded with its first clean sheet of the season and more. As promised, manager Claudio Ranieri took the team out for pizza. Until the game against Palace, Leicester had played nine games and conceded in each one of them. Although the side had exceeded expectations, their leaky defence was a constant source of worry.
To celebrate the clean sheet, Ranieri chose a Neapolitan restaurant in the town of Loughborough – around 13 miles away from King Power Stadium. If Ranieri was going to reward his team, he was going to do it in the best way possible – the pizza had to be authentic. His team has returned the favour now. Ranieri demanded the strongest effort from his players; it’s clear that they have done no less.
The dinner that night in October brought the side closer; a process that had begun with a string of impressive results from the start of the season. Yet, the defence stuttered. Leicester went on to top of the table but when it lost to Liverpool on Boxing Day, the Foxes had conceded 25 goals in 18 games. Only three clean sheets. But crucially, something had changed.
The unity that had been building throughout the side was finally being reflected at the back. Ranieri was increasingly certain that his defensive unit would feature Danny Simpson, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs. It was a backline that was to remain first-choice for the rest of the campaign. Unified off-the-pitch by the manager’s socialising efforts, the team had acquired a firm shape on the pitch too.
Since that loss to Liverpool, Leicester has conceded only 10 times in the following 19 matches. 12 of those games have brought clean sheets. While N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater have rightly earned plaudits for interrupting the opposition through their tackles and interceptions, the back four has responded to the challenge as well.
The defence had shown a weakness while defending set pieces and aerial balls in the opening weeks of the season. However, with the passing of time, Huth and Morgan particularly grew as imposing figures. Their tactics were not squeaky clean all the time. The duo have shown a tendency to employ underhand means while defending set-pieces but their shrewdness has ensured that they have largely escaped the referee’s attention. Their imposing physical presence has proved to be a distinct challenge for opposition players.
This must be particularly ironic for Wes Morgan who had to be hid from the-then Nottingham Forest manager Paul Hart in his younger days because of his weight issues. “His socks didn't go up to his knees because his calves were too big, his legs rubbed together and his shirt was skin tight,” said Forest’s former academy director John Pemberton to BBC Sport. Morgan, though, heeded Hart’s advice to become a leading member of the side in the following years. His senior role continued at Leicester as he led the team; although Ranieri had never seen him play before, Morgan’s captaincy has not been in doubt.
As a defender who loves a scrap, Huth has complemented the Leicester captain well. Despite underwhelming stints at Chelsea and Stoke, the German found admiration from the Foxes supporters during a loan stint last season that culminated in the team maintaining its Premier League status. Impressed by his leadership ability, the club signed him before the appointment of Ranieri. As the season progressed, though, Huth embellished his credentials by bossing opponents in air. He even scored two headed goals in a crucial 3-1 win over Manchester City.
Although Morgan has started every league game this season and Huth missed only one, the full-backs were not natural choices instantly. After tinkering (pun intended) in the initial weeks, Raneiri settled on Simpson and Fuchs at the expense of Ritchie de Laet and Jeffrey Schlupp respectively.
Simpson came through the ranks at Manchester United but even two seasons ago, he was not considered first-choice at a Premier League club. However, Leicester City bought him from fellow promoted side Queens Park Rangers and he finally become a certain starter this season.
Fuchs, though, followed a completely different trajectory. Only last March, he scored for Schalke at Santiago Bernabeu in a 4-3 win over Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16. Fuchs had built a reputation in Germany as a reliable crosser of the ball and it should not come as a surprise that he has four assists this term.
Although the back four has benefitted immensely from the shielding work done by Kante and Drinkwater, it has also recognised its responsibility in recent weeks to ease the burden off attackers. Leicester’s 2-2 draw with West Bromwich Albion at the start of March left it just three points clear of Tottenham Hotspur. The Foxes, though, responded to the challenge by recording five clean sheets in as many victories. This confirmed that the back four had found the comfort and stability that Ranieri had sought desperately in the first half of the season.
As a historic campaign draws to a close, no team in the Premier League has made more tackles and interceptions or blocked more passes and crosses per game than the league champions (according to whoscored.com). The numbers are a testament to a defensive unit that has nursed its ills to emerge as Leicester’s bedrock. The Foxes are not only about their counterattacking thrusts.
On the day Ranieri took his team out for pizza, he remembered to congratulate the fans. “Luck is the salt, the fans are the tomato — with no tomato there is no pizza,” the Italian manager told Daily Mail. There is no pizza without the base either. Ranieri knows that well.
Published Date: May 08, 2016 09:43 am | Updated Date: May 08, 2016 10:55 am