Once derided as the tinkerman while in charge of Chelsea, Claudio Ranieri’s secret for Leicester City’s Premier League title charge this season is astonishingly straightforward – a settled team that virtually picks itself.
The statistics tell the tale – after 31 games Leicester have used only 18 players in their starting line-ups.
To put that into perspective, title rivals Tottenham Hotspur, five points adrift of Ranieri’s men, have used 20 players, Arsenal 23, Manchester City 22 and United 26, according to www.stats.com.
While other managers rotate their squads, sometimes, but not always, to cope with demands in Europe, stability has been at the core of Leicester’s relentless consistency.
The spine of the team, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, defensive rocks Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, midfield workhorses Marc Albrighton and Danny Drinkwater and 35-goal striking duo Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, have started 29 or more league games while French midfielder N’Golo Kante has started 26.
It has been a different story for the chasing pack – Tottenham have just four players who have started at least 29 games, while there are none who have reached that mark from Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs.
A year ago football followers would have struggled to name half of Leicester’s team. They can now reel it off, just as they could the great Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa sides who claimed titles using 20 or less players.
Manchester United were the last side to win the Premier League using 20 or fewer starters, in 2002-03.
Former West Ham United striker Paolo Di Canio said Ranieri’s clarity of thought has been key.
“He understands how to put the right players in the right position and they give everything for the team,” he says of his fellow Italian. “That is the magic combination.
“Then some players are giving 200 per cent of their potential every game. That is fantastic.”
Leicester’s playing style is as simple as Ranieri’s team selections. They rely on the old fashioned virtues of work rate, no-nonsense defending and speedy attacks.
While Vardy and Mahrez have grabbed the headlines, Leicester’s defenders are the unsung heroes – protecting the lead on 17 of the 21 occasions Leicester scored first.
Four of Leicester’s last five games have resulted in 1-0 wins with 13 of their victories so far by the odd goal, proof of their ability to shackle opposing forward lines and protect Schmeichel who on average makes just 2.63 saves per game.
Leicester defend from the top back and in Kante, a £5.6 million bargain from French club Caen, have a defensive shield in the mould of Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets.
He has made a league-leading 132 tackles this season and is second in interceptions and has struck up a telepathic understanding with new England cap Drinkwater.
Ranieri has not tinkered but acted when it was needed in September after conceding five goals at home to Arsenal.
He replaced Ritchie De Laet and Jeff Schlupp with Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs, a move that worked wonders.
Having leaked 19 goals in their first 11 matches, they have conceded just 12 since.
At the other end of the pitch Leicester have struck 54 goals, second only to Tottenham’s 56, but unlike their north London title rivals they have shunned possession.
They average 44.8 per cent this season with 334 completed passes per match (the third lowest in the top flight).
Purists might scoff but once the Foxes do have the ball their transition from defence to attack is lethal thanks to the guile of Mahrez and the pace of Vardy.
Tellingly 35 per cent of their goal attempts are on target and their 13 per cent conversion rate is the best in the league.
“They play simple football but in a fantastic way,” Di Canio said. “I am proud of Ranieri. He’s done an incredible job.
“Whatever happens they will have to make a monument at the front of the stadium for him.”