What more is there to say about the one of the best sports stories in recent memory? Leicester City is currently still top of the English Premier League with 13 games left in the season. Claudio Ranieri’s side are a win this Saturday against Arsenal from looking like favorites to take the title. Many have begun to ask, what is behind the Foxes success this season? In the modern era of billionaire ownership groups dominating the football spectrum in England, how has a small outfit like Leicester become front runners after nearly being relegated the previous season? Ranieri has spoke about his team management after this past weekend’s demolition of second place Manchester City. Various aspects of his management style are slightly controversial and directly go against some popular ideas prevalent today in US Soccer, but are a great example of squad management and flexibility demonstrated by the former Chelsea manager.
Ranieri first spoke to the intensity that English players play with everyday in training. “In my view fitness training isn’t that important in England, as they all train with such intensity anyway and have a competitive edge even when just sprinting.” said the Italian. I can atest to this intensity shown by British players, having played with and against British players throughout my playing years. You can always count on English players to give it absolutely everything in training and in matches. The intensity at which players from England train and compete is taxing on the body, thus Ranieri has guaranteed the players two full days of rest a week. He trusts the players are working to their capacity during training sessions, and the players have not let the manager down thus far. This strategy can also be credited in the battle against fatigue many English Premier League teams face towards the end of the long physical season.
Ranieri’s attitude towards the fitness and the rest and recovery of his squad are very irregular. Most coaches who have teams that play regularly on the weekend stick to the Monday recovery, Tuesday high intensity, Wednesday tactical, Thursday high intensity, Friday pre-match session training schedule in order to prepare their team for the weekend match. Ranieri’s plans for only four sessions a week, with his players recovering from intense training and matches two days off each week. Highly out of the ordinary, but a method that has proven to fit well for the Foxes.
Ranieri gives his players freedom off the pitch as well. He has eliminated nutrition and diet restrictions from the squad and allows the players to live wherever they choose. A few players live in Manchester, one in London, all commute to Leicester for matches and training. Ranieri admits to be astonished at how much some of the members of the squad eat at the team dining hall, but he believes the players benefit from the respect and freedom the manager demonstrates towards his players. This relationship allows them to be in full responsibility of how prepared they are to give absolutely everything during matches and training.
All of these aspects have helped Leicester to its best ever season in the modern Premier League era. The side has talented players, but in the end you would have to look to the Italian manager as one of the main reasons the side has been so successful. His side run with an intensity and determination matched by very few. Strikers like Vardy and Okazaki chase every lost cause in their attacking third. Drinkwater and Kante storm around the center of the park, outnumbered in midfield most of the time due to their rudimentary 4-4-2 setup. The list goes on and on for the Foxes as the squad has had numerous players make names for themselves this season. All this effort from players who do very little fitness training, eat as much and whatever they would like, and in a few cases sleep a two and a half hour car ride away from the training ground.
So what can the average coach in the US take away from Ranieri’s success at Leicester this season? The recurring theme in all of these ideas is trust and responsibility. The Italian trusts that his players will give absolutely everything on match day and in training, and the players take responsibility for their individual preparation. For their efforts Ranieri makes life as easy as possible on the squad, allowing them days to rest, freedom from a strict diet, freedom to live where they please, as long as the job continues to be done successfully. Now you cannot ignore the fact that these are seasoned professionals at the highest levels of the game, who take their jobs and roles with an extreme importance. Ranieri has simply eliminated a few of the annoyances the players may find that come with the job, and rewarded his squad with control of important aspects of life outside of football, all because he claims it works best for the players he has in his squad. Ranieri was quoted “I don’t think it’s an ideal solution, but football is not chemistry, it doesn’t have set rules that work universally. What matters is getting the best out of the squad you have.”
I have personally witnessed a few examples of coaches who have full time coaching positions feel the need to work constantly to control every aspect of their job, and rightfully so, as Joe Paterno once stated “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.” Is it necessary to control the diet, the fitness levels, and other aspects of the players’ lives you coach in order to see success? Ranieri does not think it is necessary for Leicester, but it very well may be for other squads. If you do not trust the players you coach to take care of themselves off the pitch, then it may be necessary to implement a diet, a fitness regiment, and curfews for your players. This requires the coach to be skilled at reading a player’s mindset and understanding the stage of development the player may currently be in, as well as gifting players the proper amount of responsibility for their match day preparation.
Responsibility for personal preparation and performance should be taught to young players by every coach, as it is an important life skill that can be taken away from the sport. Simple aspects of youth soccer like ensuring the player is properly prepared with the right equipment, making sure he or she is ready to come on when being substituted, and ensuring they have some idea of what system or position he or she is playing prior to the match are all easy ways to drive this message to young players. Unfortunately this is a message that is sometimes taught with harsh punishments towards players, sometimes a team may lose a game due to a player not being able to play due to a lack of shin guards or the proper kit. Even at the expense of the team at times, it is important to make the player aware that they control their match and training preparation.
Coaches now have the job of rewarding players who prepare themselves properly by giving the players more control and respect. Players who consistently hydrate and eat properly should be rewarded with the right to choose what and where they eat prior to matches. Player’s who are always fit enough to give it their absolute all at training sessions and during matches should not be made to waste time at training sessions working on fitness. This respect you give players will go a long way to building a powerful bond between the players and the manager, leading to even more of a willingness to fight and scrap for results from the players. The attitude of English players helps in these situations as they train their absolute hardest at all times. You may find it more difficult with players from different cultures who see training as a chore and are only interested in playing on the weekends. Ranieri claims to have never told a player off for being lazy at Leicester during training, which he very commonly had to do during his time in Italy. So once again it is always in the interest of the particular squad that a manager needs to form this attitudes and structures, as no two scenarios are exactly the same.
In the end, the American coach can take away from Ranieri’s success that sometimes less is more. Especially at the higher levels where players understand that it is in their best interest to be fit and healthy in order to succeed in the football world. But even at the younger and lesser levels, it is great to drive the idea of personal responsibility for performances into young players in order to build the skill of preparation later in life. So get rid of the extra kit and shinguards you bring to matches, and make sure the players understand the importance of being prepared. A relationship of trust and respect between players and the gaffer will likely be rewarded with a strong will to give absolutely everything in the match and training from the players in order to ensure they do not let the manager down at the end of the day. Claudio Ranieri’s full translated interview can be found here.