The Brendan Rodgers Project: Leicester City’s Premier League title run under Claudio Ranieri

Friends of mine are married to two sisters originally from Leicester. As a result, the boys spend a lot of time in Leicestershire since most of the in-laws still live there. If you can’t find them in London, they must be in Leicester. That’s their life. They have to live with it. It’s fine.

They’re both hardcore Liverpool supporters so when Leicester City were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in a decade in 2014, they were understandably dismissive. They weren’t alone.

Leicester City probably did not register very highly on people’s radars unless you were from Leicester or a presenter on BBC’s Match of the Day (there’s only one MOTD, regardless of how many imposter shows pop up on international networks). Their first year up, the Foxes barely managed to avoid relegation and needed to win six of their last seven under Nigel Pearson to stay up.

The following season, the dismissiveness reached a fever pitch when the Foxes announced that the had parted ways with Pearson and retained the services of Claudio Ranieri, formerly known as the Tinkerman, during his spell with Chelsea.

According to BBC Chief football writer Phil McNulty, “Ranier’s appointment is, at best, left field and at worst uninspiring and unwise. A charming man but perhaps one out of time with the Premier League having last worked there with Chelsea in 2004 and having had a Chequers career since.”

Even lifelong Foxes fan, Gary Lineker, piled on.

Of course, the Twitteratti piled on.



And finally…

You get the picture.

But as they say, football isn’t played on paper. Claudio Ranieri turned out to be the most inspired pick imaginable. As everyone knows, he took a team that were given 5000-1 odds to win the league by bookies and guided them to a Premier League Championship over Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea. The big boys. And the thing that makes Ranieri’s achievement all the more remarkable was that he did it his way.

For starters, Ranieri relied on what’s considered an ancient, outmoded, and ineffective system when playing in the top leagues. He set up his team in a rigid 4-4-2 formation. It’s fine if you’re looking to play conservative football (if not quite parking the bus) and keep mediocre-to-bad teams from getting blown out of the water by more ambitious squads playing “modern” football. But if you want to win the league? No way.

Ranier’s appointment is, at best, left field and at worst uninspiring and unwise.

Yet, weekend after weekend, when Ranieri handed in his lineup sheet, it read the same way. 4-4-2. (He did reverent to a 4-1-4-1 a couple of times.) Making matters worse for the football intelligentsia, the Tinkerman refused to, you know, tinker. Instead, he kept playing the same players in the same positions. Week in. Week out. Vardy and Okazaki up front. Schmeichel all the way at back. Mahrez on the right. Wes Morgan anchoring the defense. His consistency must have driven talking head made when the cameras were off. On top of that, the results kept rolling in.

Making matters still worse, Ranieri continued to thumb his nose at modern footballistas. He donned the villain-cape normally worn by Jose Mourinho and refused to play the possession game. Leicester City’s passing stats were amongs the worst in the league since they played a lot of long balls during their counterattacks. They only averaged 43% possession for the entire season. Instead, the Foxes soaked up the pressure of opposing team attacks and when their opponents made an error, which they inevitably did, the Leicester City squad counterattacked with a swiftness and efficiency that helped carry them to the championship.

Yet for all the talk about offensive prowess, it was only half the story, if any story at all. Statistically, their expected goal production (xG) for the season ranked below all of the top teams. According to a study of the Foxes’ season done by Hector Ruiz, Paul Power, Xinyu Wei, and Patrick Lucey from the sports analytics company STATS,

“With respect to the chances they created, they were expected to score approximately 66 goals which was close to the actual 68 goals they scored, which was about average across the league… the differential of +2 is minuscule when compared to the Manchester City and United teams who had a differential ranging from +11 to +23 goals.”

While undoubtedly steady and reliable and while Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez had breakout seasons, Leicester City did not blow other teams off the pitch. Not even close.

What ended up winning the league for Claudio Ranieri and the Foxes was plain, old, boring defense. That is where they shined. According to Ruiz, et al., “Leicester had by far the most effective defence.” Even though they tended to leak goals at the start of the season, forcing them to come from behind in 6 of their first 11 matches (giving them a reputation for having never-say-die attitudes), their defense eventually improved. In the end, they allowed 36 goals all season. Not terribly impressive until you compare it with expected goal models that projected Leicester City conceding a whopping 46.5 goals. That’s a -10.7 differential.

Much of their success came down to a combination of a very good showing by Kasper Schmeichel. According to Ruiz’s model, only Watford’s Heurelho Gomes had a better showing between the posts.

In terms of how Leicester City dealt with specific situations, Ruiz et al. designed a special “Strategy Plot” that allows for the visualization of how the teams tended to score and concede. The bigger the box, the more the chances. The darker the color of the box, the less effective the effort at dealing.

Ruiz’s description of the chart: “Strategy plot of the 2015/16 EPL season comparing all 20 teams offensive (less) and defensive (right) effectiveness for all 14 shot types. The size of the square relates to how many shots were made/conceded for each shot type. The intensity of the color corresponds to the effectiveness with respect to xG (i.e., light = low xG, dark = high xG).”

In terms of offense, Leicester City performed best on counterattacks, as would be expected and established. Defensively, they conceded shots through direct play, corner kicks, and crosses the most. However, the light red color in the boxes indicates that they were dealt with effectively, preventing goals. In short, Ranieri’s team’s -10.7 expected goals conceded differential was no fluke.

So what does this have to do with Brendan Rodgers?

Anyone who has followed his career knows that Rodgers is an acolyte of modern football. Moreover, in the past, he subscribed to score first, defend maybe later philosophy. Every sport has a team like Rodgers’ Liverpool and Celtic teams. If we can’t defend you, we can definitely outgun you. The Aaron Boone’s 2018 “Baby Bomber” New York Yankees. Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns and to a lesser extent his current Houston Rockets. The list goes on. And one thing most of those teams have in common? They didn’t win championships. (Of course, Celtic were the exception having won spectacularly in the Scottish League. However, one gets the sneaking suspicion that’s as much a testimony to the weakness of the league complimented by Rodgers’ acumen as a manager.)

Whether Claudio Ranieri was the Premier League’s version of Jensen Button, we’ll let smart historians and pundits decide. All we know is that he won the league by having his team put in the best sustained defensive performance in England. And as the much-maligned Tinkerman proved, defense wins titles.

Everyone knows Brendan Rodgers can get his teams to score goals. As he’s already shown, he can get Leicester City to score goals they were incapable of under Puel. However, whether he can get them to defend is another story altogether.

WORDS: Marc Landas

SOURCES: BBC; Hector Ruiz, Paul Power, Xinyu Wei, and Patrick Lucey. 2017. “The Leicester City Fairytale?”: Utilizing New Soccer Analytics Tools to Compare Perfor- mance in the 15/16 & 16/17 EPL Seasons. In Proceedings of KDD conference, El Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada, August 2017 (KDD 2017), 13 pages.

DIAGRAMS: BBC; Hector Ruiz, Paul Power, Xinyu Wei, and Patrick Lucey. 2017. “The Leicester City Fairytale?”: Utilizing New Soccer Analytics Tools to Compare Perfor- mance in the 15/16 & 16/17 EPL Seasons. In Proceedings of KDD conference, El Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada, August 2017 (KDD 2017), 13 pages.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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