Leicester are just 1 point from the Premier League’s summit after 12 games, sitting 3rd behind Man City and Arsenal. Any mention of “purple patches” or “easy runs” can be countered by recalling the series of wins (7 from 9) they had at the end of last season. This is a sustained period of good form and it no longer feels like a hot streak where everything is falling for them.
Refreshingly, Leicester have approached their games with a ‘you score two, we’ll score three’ mentality, which has been a wonderful escape from the highly structured, tactically disciplined set ups that many teams employ. They are the league’s great entertainers. They have scored just one goal less than current leaders City and have conceded the same number of goals as bottom club Aston Villa.
Their solitary league defeat this season came against Arsenal in a 5-2 home reverse in a game where the sides had over 40 attempts on goal between them. They have also rescued 10 points from losing positions – more than any other team. Leicester’s games are incredibly open in general, end to end, dazzling and action packed. Red hot Jamie Vardy is zeroing in on Ruud Van Nistelroooy’s record for scoring in consecutive Premier League games thanks to his teammates penchant for attacking like plundering pirates. Watching them is like being drunk at the circus – you’re not sure what’s going on, but it’s incredibly fun.
In terms of value for money and entertainment for fans, Leicester are out on their own and they deserve both the recognition and praise that should come with that, because sometimes it is easy to forget what football is. It’s a pastime for the working class and ordinary man. It’s escapism through sport. Man Utd fans will be able to tell you all about the importance of entertaining football.
Leicester’s anti-anti-football should be used as a blueprint for other Premier League clubs with progressive aspirations. They are showing us that it isn’t necessary to roll out the kind of turgid percentage play football favoured by managers like Tony Pulis, who set out to strangle the life out of games through blanket defences, time wasting and set piece repetition. There is another way – a better way.
And yet, Pulis is regularly celebrated for his record and ability to grind results out for teams. Jose Mourinho once said of the WBA manager:
“If I own an English club, which I don’t and which I’d never do, I’d sign Tony Pulis. It’s as simple as that. It’s a guarantee to achieve what the club wants….His record is absolutely amazing and he does what some people don’t understand – but I do – and what other people sometimes don’t rate, but I do.”
I guess it’s no surprise that one manager who appreciates structure and discipline over freedom of expression would praise another. Peas in a pod. Mourinho also once said:
“I left out Hazard because we are conceding lots of goals”
A quote that would horrify football purists and fans of genius alike.
Take Saturday’s recent game between two of the Premier League’s dullest outfits, Man Utd and WBA at Old Trafford. Pulis dug the trenches, spooled out the razor wire and stationed a ten strong defensive patrol at the edge of their 18 yard box. They succeeded in frustrating a regularly toothless and dull United attack until the second half, having offered nothing in attack themselves.
When United did manage to nick a goal, Pulis made a couple of attacking changes and you know what? They started to look a genuine threat. Berahino was introduced, Sessegnon was released from defensive responsibilities down the right and the Baggies began to make United look vulnerable.
So why not approach the game in that way from the outset? It wasn’t necessary to be overly gung-ho, there weren’t huge or obvious gaps for United to exploit on the break (bar the counter for the injury time penalty). Why not make the game a contest from kick-off? Adventure is very often rewarded in this league if teams have the courage to embrace it.
It is of course naïve of me to think that Tony Pulis will suddenly completely change his tactical methodology. He can point to results in black and white as a reason to continue his tried and tested approach. He was even voted Premier League Manager of the Year a couple of seasons ago for keeping Crystal Palace up with his mechanical formulae. And what a thoroughly deserved award it was too! Who could forget sensational games like: Palace 1 West Ham 0, Aston Villa 0 Palace 1, Palace 1 Hull City 0, Sunderland 0 Palace 1 and of course Palace 1 Aston Villa 0, which brought rushing back the memories from that earlier showpiece Aston Villa 0 Palace 1. Remarkable.
In fairness, they did scupper Liverpool’s title charge with that 3 goal comeback, which might just be deserving of the Manager of the Year award on its own.
I feel I am slipping a little off track here with my Pulis bashing, but it’s more a comparison or example of what football shouldn’t be and a style that clubs should never strive to emulate.
What Leicester have shown the leagues other minnows (not intended as an insult, put down the torches) is that you don’t need to pack your team full of 6 foot plus bruisers to succeed. Trust in the game’s footballers, believe in expression, pick talent and ingenuity over limitation and cynicism. Be a Flying Fox and not a Boring Baggie.