Fearless Foxes : How Leicester City F C won the mental battle to be champions of England
With more drama and tears than ‘Any Given Sunday’ and ‘Rocky’ combined, Leicester are champions of the Premier League. I didn’t predict this but I did notice something very special in Leicester early on in the season. (yes really)
The word “belief” has been spoken many times from the Leicester players and their manager, Claudio Ranieri. Without belief, you cannot win titles. This is obvious. But how much easier is it for a top four team to have belief than a complete outsider like Leicester. So where did this incredible 'fearless foxes belief' come from?
It started before this season even kicked off and has been reinforced by the way the way Leicester won their games.
The foundations of Leicester’s self-belief
The key to Leicester’s success lies in the last ten games of the 2014-2015 season. Their spectacular relegation escape laid the foundations of their mental strength. Anchored to the bottom of the league for five months to April 2015, Leicester would have to play as well as the title leaders just to stay in the Premier League. And ….they had only ten games to do it. This type of 'against all odds' success under extreme pressure will have carved strong belief pathways into the players subconscious.
For Leicester’s relegation escape defied sporting logic. It was as extraordinary as them winning the League this season.
The staggering fact is that if Leicester had played the way they had in their last ten games throughout the season, they would have been champions last year as well as in 2016. Pause a while to let this sink in. Leicester scored 22 points from their last 10 games by winning 7, drawing 1 and losing 1. The same record throughout the season would have put them on 88 points. Chelsea won the league with 87 and Man City came second with 79.
How Leicester showed their mental strength from the start of the season : winning and drawing games from losing positions.
Whilst pundits were predicting Leicester would fail, some were ignoring a very important pointer that they were going to succeed. Not only did they fail to appreciate the effect of Leicester’s last ten games, they also missed the way this resilient team were winning games.
Leicester weren’t just winning, they were winning from losing positions – more than anyone in the League. By September, Leicester had claimed 10 points from losing positions : this was a league high .It was clear they were building from their reserves of self belief gained from their great escape from relegation.
They were also winning from last minute goals . Leicester never gave up for the 90 plus minutes they were on the pitch.
What this gave them was extra confidence. They were not only confident of a win, they were confident they could win whatever the score. They could still do it even if it was in the last few minutes. Sometimes this was from 2-0 down at half time , like the win over Aston Villa which finished 3-2.
By September Leicester were the first team since Everton in 2012 to claim at least a point from behind in four successive premier league fixtures.
In October they were still unbeaten away and yet again they came from two goals down at Southampton to equalise in injury time. 15 of the last 17 goals converted by Leicester came in the second half.
Understandably this cavalier approach wasn’t doing the manager Claude Ranieri’s nerves any good and he was prompted to say after Leicester came from 2-0 down again to draw at Stoke “We need to start games better so we are not always fighting back”
Maybe when Ranieri reflects on this season he will agree that all the “fighting back” he referred to made Leicester the champions they are today . I firmly believe that this early period of rescuing points from the jaws of defeat cemented the players’ belief and courage which ultimately made them champions. Even if they do not contemplate this consciously, there will be an underlying subconscious belief that “we win against the odds”. This is an add on to the self belief they gained from the final 10 games of last season.
It is not a coincidence that Tottenham were also leaders in winning from losing positions up until February of this year. This experience of fighting back has got them to second position.
Where Leicester have kept it up until the end, Tottenham have folded under the pressure. Pochettino may take consolation that they are a young and very talented team, but you can’t help wondering how different it could have been for Tottenham if they had had a leader like Wes Morgan who was backed up by a very experienced spine of mature players. Huth, Schmeikel, Drinkwater, Simpson, Fouks.
Fearless minds produce fearless tactics
Leicester’s fearless mentality was reflected in the style of play. As one commentator said “Leicester deserve to be where they are. When they get in front they keep driving forward, they don’t sit back and when they go behind they keep driving forward.”
They resisted the psychological tendency to try and protect a lead. This is a natural response and we see how brave they were when playing Man City. IT is this confident play that got them the 3 goals to 1 win at the Etihad. Some teams would have sat back after an early goal but Leicester ramped up the pressure and went on to score 2 more.
When the mental battle was won
Even the devastating suspension of their top goal scorer Jamie Vardy didn’t phase Leicester. So many pundits said that the title was over for Leicester as Tottenham had some easier games and still had the league’s top goal scorer Kane. But when Leicester’s Vardy less team stunned Swansea with their biggest defeat of the season , a 4-0 their jubilant supporters sang “are you watching Tottenham”. It seemed that not only were Tottenham watching, they were cowed by it. In contrast to Leicester proving they could win without Vardy , Tottenham suffered from an obvious lack of confidence when they played West Brom three days later.
They had only two shots on target, their lowest of the season so far. Sounesses excuse for the collapse seemed lame. “This is theyoungest team in the Premier League and a team that’s never been anywhere near this before” . Quite so, but then how many of the Leicester team have played as title contenders? It is this game that saw Deli Alli lose control and get sent off for punching Yacob
This is the point when Leicester won the mental battle. Tottenham didn’t just lose it they buried it. And if Tottenham fans thought that was bad, worse was to come against Chelsea….
Why Tottenham couldn’t become title winners
Tottenham’s melt down was most evident at Stamford Bridge. Cunning and experience can flaw even the most talented and youthful bunch and Chelsea probed and dug out their weaknesses on and off the pitch . Entertaining as it was for neutrals, Pochettino must have been horrified to see his players throwing a 2-0 lead and title away whilst acting like petulant children who had lost a game of pass the parcel. A record number 9 yellow cards tells you why this team wouldn’t win the title this year.
Tottenham ran out of mental strength
The beginning of the season showed a much more mentally strong Tottenham playing with great tenacity and mental courage. They were fighters, they could win from losing positions and they got to second place. So what happened?
It seemed they were just mentally shot and couldn’t get past the final hurdle. Also Leicester winning so convincingly without Vardy against Swansea was a great psychological boost for Leicester and made Tottenham sit up and think “what the hell”.
Their last five games show a team that is running out of steam, with the last three games resulting in a loss and two draws. Leicester by contrast made light work of beating Everton on Saturday, even after the inevitable celebrations on Monday night.
What next for Leicester’s competitors ?
With success comes the inevitable “let’s see how they did it and copy them”. No doubt there is a great deal to be learned from Leicester but here’s the rub. Their recipe for success can only really work for the outsiders. This is great news for the smaller clubs and for sports people who despair at the clubs who buy titles. It is also fantastic for all those underdogs, struggling sports people, those who think they are too old, not good enough , the also rans.
The reason it won’t work for the usual contenders is because Leicester’s victory is down to a unique set of experiences and mental challenges never associated with title winning teams.
The two factors identified in this article can’t be copied unless as a team you have fought your way out of the relegation zone in the sensational way that Leicester did. I am not talking about an edging over the finishing line, I am talking about doing the unthinkable 22 points in 10 games.
Leicester carried on building their bank of confidence by winning from losing positions. Would any manager send out their team to lose the first goal so that they can gain mental strength by winning against the odds. Ranieri didn’t like it even if it did help his players in the long run.
The Leicester dressing room
When Clive Woodward took the English rugby team to victory, he was very particular on the type of attitude and mentality he wanted. He wanted positive players who would die for each other. He got it and so has Ranieri. These are dressing rooms where individual egos have no place and fighting for the team is paramount.
This is exactly what we have seen from Leicester. The key players of last season, Ulluoa and Schlupp may have been eclipsed by Vardy and Albrighton but they show absolutely no resentment. When Vardy was suspended Ulloa and Schlupp stepped up and played a vital part in gaining the title. Would the starlets of Chelsea or Man United have been so generous I wonder. You can tell their love for the team exists beyond team selections.
How many times have we seen the so called big players sulking because they are on the bench. It makes Aston Villa’s unproven players look so ridiculous when they demand places after proving nothing.
Seeing Morgan, Huth, Okasaki and Fuchs, all aged 30 plus, lifting the trophy gives hope to other mature players. Leicester were 20th for most of the season last year and this year's title winning captain is 32. Equally, it is inspiration for the players who think they can’t hack it in the premier league like Jamie Vardy did only two seasons ago. For those at lesser clubs who think they will never make it you only have to look to Vardy again, recruited from Fleetwood Town. For the players the clubs didn’t want like Marc Albrighton whose boyhood club Aston Villla let him go for nothing, there remains hope.
Then there are the foreign players like Mahrez - recruited for £400,000 winning Player of the Year. Kasper Smiechel, lifting the trophy at the same age as his Father : not for a topfour club like Manchester United but for unlikely Leicester.
It is the rejects, the strugglers, the unproven and those in the twilight of their careers who have been the soldiers with the strongest feet and calmest head. It isn’t the petulant, spoiled and temperamental £35 million players who have been crowned but those who have sacrificed and fought the hardest. This is what makes this season the most memorable yet not just for the Foxes fans but for sports lovers everywhere.
Leicester has done for football what Roger Bannister did for running
Roger Bannister was the first to run a four minute mile. No-one had done it before him yet within twelve months four more people had beaten the record. Once the belief is there, the door is opened for others to have a go. This is not to say thatyou only have to spend £50 million to guarantee success but that mental attitude, team spirit and the right players and manager can defeat more expensive teams with maybe more talented individuals.
The last word goes to Raneiri
The Leicester success proves that the nice guys can win too. But Ranieri isn’t just a nice guy. It is under his watch that Leicester players have kept their calm, united together and played a system that gets the best out of them. It is his reluctance to make the title his goal, insisting that everything over 40 points is a bonus. Even his new catch phrase ‘dilly ding dilly dong’ is a humorous way of easing pressure whilst keeping focus.
It is Ranieri who has stuck with his first team more than any other manager this season. It is Ranieri who instilled confidence in them by adopting a winning system when Vardy was suspended. It is Ranieri who and has kept them all happy, even the ones not playing so regularly. This is a master stroke in itself.
Bravo Claludio. I hope you get that statue or a stand named after you because you deserve it. Most of all, you have given hope to all the underdogs out there and that is a priceless gift. Thankyou.