Hailed as the greatest sporting upset of all time, Leicester City has defied 5000-1 odds, to claim the 2015/16 English Premier League.
We explore the role manager Claudio Ranieri played in this remarkable achievement and consider what amateur coaches can learn from his unlikely success.
FIND YOUR PLAYERS STRENGTHS, THEN THE TEAMS
Many coaches will walk into a club barrel-chested demanding that players ‘buy in’ to their approach or move on. However, when Ranieri took control at Leicester, he observed the attributes of his players before deciding on a game plan to implement. Ranieri quickly identified that the speed of forwards Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez was an asset that could exploit other sides. This realisation was the catalyst for his team’s approach – An unfashionable 4-4-2 formation, with two lines of defence, played on the counter-attack. While these tactics were far from revolutionary, they did align with the qualities at his disposal – the incredible speed of players in attacking positions.
‘He is unbelievable, just like the Road Runner… beep, beep and then WOOSH! He’s gone’. Ranieri said on Riyad Mahrez
Importantly, when this approach started winning games, Ranieri stuck with it; something he’d been criticised for not doing at Chelsea in the early 2000’s. The media even labelled him ‘Tinkerman’, due to his constant changes to the squad, it’s formation and tactics.
Another key to Leicesters success was their ability to keep the same team together; as shown below, Ranieri’s side used fewer players than any other during the season. Being able to keep a consistent team throughout a season is a common factor in teams that have claimed unexpected success.
Is your game plan designed around the strengths of your players, or preconceived ideas?
How do you manage player unavailability in non-professional teams?
MAKE THE CLUB A FUN PLACE
Through Ranieri’s refreshing and quirky press interviews, journalists labelled him ‘Clownio’. This likeable personality also extended in his relationships with players. Throughout the 2015/16 campaign, he frequently highlighted his unique character.
In his pre-match address before the opening-day 4-2 win over Sunderland, he referenced local rock band Kasabian. Telling the players “’When you go on the pitch and you hear the song Fire from Kasabian, that means (the fans) want warriors’, said Ranieri.
Ranieri then gained media attention for promising to take his team out for pizza and champagne if they could keep a clean sheet – 10 weeks later, he delivered on his promise after the sides 1- 0 win over Crystal Palace. When asked about any negative nutritional impacts, Ranieri replied, “No, it’s carbohydrate – good for the muscles”.
‘What we are doing here is like a pizza. To do well, you have to have the right ingredients. You have to work hard, you have to do everything right, but also like salt, a little luck is good.’
(When asked what the fans meant to the club) …’They’re the tomato, without tomato there’s no pizza.’ Ranieri said after the side’s first clean sheet.
While in March 2016, Ranieri stated that he used an “imaginary bell” in training to keep his players focussed, repeatedly saying “dilly ding, dilly dong”- the phrase later became a catchphrase for the club after Ranieri brought all the players little bells for presents at Christmas.
This personality and flair clearly resonated with the players. Star Striker and FWA Footballer of the Year James Vardy believed the playing group were like brothers – “It is not once you leave the training ground you don’t see them until the next day. “We’re constantly talking with each other, going out for meals, ” said Vardy.
Ranieri’s sense of bringing fun back into the game was also adopted by Darren Lehmann – Coach of the Australian Cricket team. While Lehman’s processor infamously suspended players for not doing homework, Lehmann was credited with making the Australian team an enjoyable environment again. Fitness coach Damian Mednis stated “He (Lehmann) hides players’ bats and their gear. He hides himself and jumps out of cupboards. Boof is the class clown, always playing jokes and gags on players or taking the mickey out of them,”
Ranieri’s impact undoubtedly contributed to the togetherness of the group and the sides success. Where do you sit on making time for fun with your players?
TAKE THE PRESSURE OFF THE PLAYERS
Throughout the season, Ranieri frequently played down his team’s chances, taking the pressure off the players and giving them the freedom to play. Among the media frenzy of Leicesters place on top of the table at Christmas, he repeatedly stated his goal was to avoid relegation. Even in the sides run-in to the final games, he announced that he was sure Tottenham would overtake them.
While this was stated publicly, he also communicated this to the players, after the 1-3 win away at Manchester City, Ranieri told his players “OK, clean everything, next match. Start again.’ So when I say, [to the media] we play match by match, it’s true.”
When speaking with players and media, how do you manage expectations? Are you optimistic and promote that they can win everything, set what you think is realistic, or talk down your teams chances? What are the pros and cons of each approach?
Interestingly, Claudio is rather philosophical about his inconvincible success this season. When asked whether he had changed as a leader? He replied, “There I lost, here I am winning” (A reference to being sacked from his previous role coaching Greece within four months of taking the job). A humble response from a man who has just claimed his first trophy in 30 years of managing.
So, what are the key points to take away for amateur coaches? Developing a game plan based on the attributes of your key players is crucial – Consider the situations in a game that are most likely to allow you to score, and then, how can you maximise the times you create these conditions? Secondly, never forget why your players play the game – Make time for laughter, fun and team bonding. In the long run, having a close connection to your players will produce more rewarding results than having players play in spite of you. Finally, managing expectations is a primary responsibility of a coach. However, there are no blanket rules to determine what approach to take. This judgement separates coaches that truly understand what motivates their team, and how to apply the right amount of pressure for them to perform at their peak.
BE THE VOICE THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
Thanks for reading. Comment below with any thoughts Claudio’s approach and what you can apply. If you have any suggestions on who we should look at next, let us know.