Leicester City: Socks, selfies and stealth - will the Foxes ever re-discover the secrets of last season's miracle?

The Premier League champions unearthed the secret to success last season and reaped the rewards. But why have the Foxes struggled to find their form this time round?

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The Independent Football

‘Le petit chou-chou du vestaire’ - ‘the little pet of the dressing room’ - is what they called N’Golo Kante when he played for Caen. He was a player whose former Leicester City teammates found impossible to draw into conversation and who is so small that the club’s security staff assumed he was over on trial with the youth team when he arrived at the Belvoir Drive training ground to sign, on August 3 last year. “Staying in the Marriott?” one of them asked him as Kante waited for a taxi that day. “Nice of your mum and dad to put you up in a big hotel…”

Quiet man; quiet purchase. While other Premier League clubs blew a fortune on high profile targets, Leicester displayed nothing more complicated than intelligence, rigour and a willingness to sift the evidence. Esteban Cambiasso was leaving the club, so they asked the analytics team to look for metrics such as most interceptions, tackles and forward passes per 90 minutes across Europe’s top leagues. Then they profiled statistics relevant to Leicester’s playing style, such as turnover of possession and ‘ball recoveries.’ Kante’s name just kept cropping up. A French agent who had been involved in the player’s development  thought that 5ft 6ins was too small for the Premier League but Steve Walsh, chief scout and now Everton director of football, insisted this was the one. Caen were paid £5.6m and the rest is history.

The story of his capture - finalised because Marseille, a club Kante would have preferred, foolishly tried to lowball Caen - is one of many told in ‘Fearless’, a new book on Leicester’s incredible title season by the journalist Jonathan Northcroft. Required reading for every club aspiring to achieve a fraction of what Leicester did, it reveals in its impeccably researched detail some of the less appreciated reasons why “the greatest miracle in sports history” actually happened.

The lazy complacency of the so-called big clubs in the transfer market is one of them, for sure, but also those clubs’ capacity to motivate Leicester by writing them off.  The story of the “Arsenal Selfies” is another vivid one. No sooner had Danny Welbeck scored his late winner against Leicester at the Emirates last February than Arsene Wenger’s players were tweeting images of their triumphal selves – Mesut Ozil with an emoji of a flexed bicep and #bigpoints. “Social media is dangerous,” goalkeeper Kaspar Schemichel tells Northcroft. “I’m not saying more. Very dangerous…”

Another factor was manager Claudio Ranieiri’s willingness to leave alone much of the infrastructure set up by his predecessor Nigel Pearson, whose substantial and previously overlooked part in the title success gets full acknowledgement in the book. Incoming managers are usually too full of ego to leave these systems well alone but it was Pearson’s infrastructure which secured Kante.

Ranieiri intervened when absolutely necessary. He didn’t make a single observation on Leicester’s pre-season tour at Bad Rakersburg in Austria, yet then abandoned Pearson’s three-man defence at half time in the fifth preparation match against Birmingham City. In that instant, everything changed about Leicester’s football.

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Oriol Romeu and Islam Slimani compete for the ball two weekends ago at the King Power Stadium (Getty)

Above all, the fabulous dynamics of the dressing room, with its many routines, shout out from the book. There is the Flying Socks routine, the Driving Fines system, the pinning of the fitness stats readouts to the changing room walls – and the mix of personalities which no manager can pre-ordain. The tightness was a consequence of Ranieiri possessing a small squad. At least five of his men sound like they would be captains in any other team.

The question, as Leicester face Chelsea and Kante this weekend, is how much of what Northcroft defines remains intact and why the side - 12th in the table and already ten points off the top - have not been able to rekindle it, so far.

The departure of Kante is an unmistakeable part of the picture, of course.  Leicester’s average number of tackles and interceptions per game has dropped from 22 to 16 and 19 to 14 respectively.  Kante would average 56 sprints of more than 25.2km/h per game. The midfielder currently operating where Kante did - 21-year-old Daniel Amartey - is making 41.5 such sprints each match, while averaging 1.5 tackles and 1.2 interceptions. Nampalys Mendy, signed for £10m from Nice to replace Kante, has been injured.

There’s more to the struggle than replacing the man they called “NG”, though. Leicester spent a club record £29m on striker Islam Slimani this summer and making use of that investment has entailed a wholesale change in approach. There is more emphasis on getting the ball wide and crossing it for the Algerian, while last season the ball tended to go over the top as there was no target man. It has been an entire system shift: from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. That doesn’t sound terribly wise. If it ain’t broke… Time will tell.

Shinji Okazaki has made way for Slimani and Northcroft’s book illustrates that his value was far more than a legendary work ethic. Leicester felt the hidden factor behind Jamie Vardy’s goal-scoring success last season was the Japanese player’s ability, operating behind the Englishman, to keep adjusting position and retaining the structure of the team. Very early days, but this has felt like a more manufactured, less organically formed Leicester.

Defender Danny Simpson also admitted, in the aftermath of the 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford, that new rules on shirt tugging in the area - part of the Robert Huth game - has had a psychological effect this season. “It is in your mind, yes, we have seen a few decisions this season. It is something we have to learn to adapt to as players.”

Whether Vardy and Riyah Mahrez have been subliminally affected by the prospect of summer moves is more difficult to intuit. But Schmeichel, organiser of the Driving Fines and dressing room leader, has been injured, ending that apparent immunity to injury Leicester experienced last season.

The quality of opposition must be factored in, too. There is obviously now less complacency and more familiarity with the threat Leicester bring. Opponents have spent most of summer calculating how to deal with it. United and Liverpool, who have both beaten them heavily, are better sides in 2016/17.

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Ranieri sensed something different at Old Trafford. “When we concede a goal why do we switch off?” he asked. “That for me is the more important thing. We can lose a match but it is important to lose when you are satisfied you have made the maximum…”

But grappling for an answer seems rather beside the point. Leicester won the title because they just worked unquestioningly and came to believe they could move mountains. Northcroft tells of what would happen in training if someone ever tried to beat NG. “ A mocking cry of ‘know your players!’ would go up among the lads. Meanwhile, a quiet little leg would confiscate the ball.”

Fearless, The Amazing Underdog Story of Leicester City, by Jonathan Northcroft (Headline £20)

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