Has Claudio Ranieri learned from the mistakes of Brendan Rodgers and Kevin Keegan?
Claudio Ranieri may no longer be seen as the tinker man, but he has been making subtle changes to his team that might see them avoid becoming a member of the "so close" club.
In February of 2014, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool went on a winning run that all of a sudden made them realistic title challengers, claiming 11 back-to-back victories.
Their extended purple patch came off the back of a number of disappointing results that saw them slip from the top of the pile at Christmas down to fifth, before they turned things around again and pushed for the title. The cruel end to that season, in particular for club legend Steven Gerrard, may hold some lessons for the side who are currently top of the table in the Premier League.
Claudio Ranieri’s team have already come through the other end of their own dip in form after winning just once in five attempts around Christmas, and after last weekend’s win over Manchester City they are the bookies’ favourites for the title.
That lofty position reflects the fact that this run is not a flash in the pan, like so many others have been. Now they face a different challenge - to avoid becoming another of the teams that “almost” won the title.
Kevin Keegan and his side of “entertainers” are still revered to this day at St. James’ Park, but the credit for their slip almost universally goes to Alex Ferguson, the king of the mind games. After he called out the Leeds players for failing to try as hard every week as they had against Manchester United, Kevin Keegan had the famous rant on television that has since become one of the things he is best remembered for.
Fergie’s record on that front is surprisingly good. His questioning of Blackburn’s “bottle” similarly inspired Tim Flowers seminal exposition on the nature of sports psychology which has since overshadowed the fact that he was in great form through to the end of that season. The rest of his team-mates, as Alan Shearer admitted on Match of the Day recently, fell over the line. Rafa Benitez too, succumbed to the lure of his dossiers and facts.
Mind games aside, that Keegan rant came well after they had blown the 12-point gap they had given themselves at the top of the table earlier in the season, and with both sides fighting it out and level on points, United pushed on for two more wins while Newcastle could only manage two draws.
The problem for Keegan’s side, and what actually cost them the title in the end, was a leaky defence, and an inability to close out games where they had the lead. Between February and April, they saw their advantage disappear before their eyes as they won only two of their eight games.
They entertained, but they did so with folly and little consideration at the back - chasing games and attacking to the point that they ended up drawing 3-3 with Manchester City, a goal from Philippe Albert sparing their blushes and saving them from defeat. The fact that it was Albert, a defender, who latched on to the through ball from Faustino Asprilla late on was perhaps indicative of the way they played.
Similarly, they were undone famously in a 4-3 loss to Liverpool; they gave themselves the lead twice but failed to keep out Stan Collymore’s late effort. Slumping over the advertising hoardings with his head in his hands, Keegan’s body language said everything about what was happening to his team.
They also failed to keep out two goals in the final five minutes against Blackburn as a brace from Graham Fenton (both set up by Alan Shearer) condemned them to a 2-1 loss, their lead at the top of the table now completely eroded.
Similarly, Brendan Rodgers’ tilt at the title in the 2013/14 season was built on an attacking platform, the main game plan being to outscore the opposition in a shootout.
While there are those who pinpoint Steven Gerrard’s slip as the moment it all went wrong, or argue that the team relied too heavily on the goals and creativity of Luis Suárez, Rodgers’ Liverpool side and Keegan’s Newcastle suffered from the same fatal flaw.
Despite being top at Christmas, a difficult run of fixtures followed in which Liverpool lost to both Chelsea and Manchester City, perhaps unluckily in the latter case after a Raheem Sterling goal was ruled out for offiside. As they entered the New Year, their defensive woes continued to cost them points, including a draw at home against Aston Villa and away against West Brom, until they hit their 11 game winning streak which followed.
They only survived by the skin of their teeth in a number of those fixtures, with 3-2 wins over Norwich, Manchester City and Fulham, as well as a 4-3 victory against Swansea, conceding 15 goals in total.
That shaky defensive record was ultimately to be Rodgers’ downfall, despite coming so close to bringing Liverpool their first league title in decades. His system meant that individual errors were punished severely, and the three own goals conceded during that run were symptomatic of the reckless approach to defending the team as a whole had.
Image: Peter Byrne / PA Archive/Press Association Images
When Gerrard mis-controlled the ball slipped against Chelsea, the system once again punished the team for a freak individual accident. As the clock ticked over towards half-time and Gerrard lost his footing on the Anfield turf, he was the last man, with both Skrtel and Sakho split wide and pushed up to the halfway line. This, for a team that was coming to Anfield looking to park the bus and play on the counter, made Liverpool the perfect opponent.
Image: Liverpool's Luis Suarez is consoled by Crystal Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni after the final whistle. John Walton / EMPICS Sport
Similarly, throwing away a lead with poor defending and failing to close out the game against Crystal Palace was seen as folly by pundits and fans alike, who slammed the team for refusing to abandon their attacking style of play and get defensive.
Somewhat strangely, that refusal to change is exactly what Ranieri’s Leicester side have been praised for in recent weeks.
Although his reputation as the “tinker man” preceded him at the start of the season, the Italian has been getting plaudits after his side comprehensively beat Manchester City 3-1 by doing what came naturally to them and attacking right from the off.
While they could have conceded more than the single goal to Sergio Agüero in the closing stages of that game, that line of argument largely ignores the fact that Ranieri has altered things in order to make his team more defensively resolute.
Before the international break at the end of 2015, Leicester were winning games by virtue of their attacking prowess and a stunning goalscoring run from Jamie Vardy. Often coming from behind to win points, they conceded 20 goals and kept just one clean sheet between the season’s start and the first week of November. Since then, they have conceded just seven goals in 12 games, and are making use of set pieces to great effect.
Early in the season, Ranieri experimented with a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1 formation, playing Andy King and Gokhan Inler in the middle, before settling on the combination of Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante, while his back four also changed, with Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson featuring more regularly than Richie de Laet and Jeffrey Schlupp.
Image: Nigel French / PA Wire/Press Association Images
Now that they are favourites, at least according to the bookies, will teams begin to treat them differently and change the way they play to try and frustrate the Foxes?
That question may be answered this weekend as they face Arsenal, who have had their own struggles of late. If Arsène Wenger wants to avoid being pipped to the title in "embarrassing" fashion, then he needs to set his side up to go for the win, but he may be cautious of being caught by the pace of Vardy and creativity of Riyadh Mahrez.
Although Wenger saw his team beat Leicester 5-2 earlier in the season, he can't afford to think that their newly resolute defence won't have learned anything from that experience. With six points in the bag against Manchester City and Liverpool in two dominant performances, it's clear that Leicester City's tinker man is still at work.