West Ham United
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 By Rory Smith

Leicester's 'lesson' is that teams should be themselves, not copy others

By now, the statistics have been wheeled out so often that they are almost reassuringly familiar. If the Premier League was decided on possession percentage, Leicester City would be 18th. If the number of passes completed by a team is a measure of their quality, Claudio Ranieri's side are the worst in the division. And yet, as you will probably have noticed, quite the opposite is true.

Leicester are not bottom of the Premier League. In fact, they can win the title by beating Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. Even if they are not victorious, they could be champions the following day if Chelsea and Eden Hazard deliver on their promise to end Tottenham's lingering hopes.

That both of these things are true -- Leicester are top of the league on points but near-bottom in passes made and possession retained -- has given rise to one of those misconceptions that football seems to develop with depressing regularity. Correlation is taken for causation: Because Leicester are top but do not have much of the ball, it is assumed Leicester are top because they do not have much of the ball.

Whatever faults that fans, media and the punditocracy have, an unwillingness to learn is not among them. If anything, all of us are a little too quick to extract a lesson from a set of events. Every goal, game and season is seen as a teachable moment; a chance to chip away at the dark cloud of ignorance and edge closer to some bright, pure truth.

You see it most clearly when a nation enjoys some unexpected success at international level. Take Belgium, for example. In recent years, Belgium have been blessed with a glut of talent, like Romelu Lukaku, Mousa Dembele, Jan Vertonghen, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and a dozen or so others. It is, most agree, the finest generation the country has ever produced.

They were hailed as dark horses for the World Cup two years ago; they will quite possibly arrive in France for this summer's European Championships as officially the best team in the world, according to the FIFA ranking system. Marc Wilmots' team are also among the bookmakers' favourites to win the tournament. 

Of course, this has not gone unnoticed. Countries across Europe have started to ask what exactly the Belgians have done to turn their fortunes around so spectacularly. Representatives of the Belgian football authorities have been invited to speak at St George's Park, England's base, in the hope that they might pass on some pearls of wisdom.

Belgium's near neighbours, the Dutch, are so impressed with what has happened over the border (and so troubled by their own apparent failure to keep producing their own rich seam of young talent) that they have also sought advice.

Belgium's national team is full of superstars but efforts to copy them won't get other nations far.

The problem is that, as anyone who has worked at the youth level of Belgian football will tell you, there is no great secret that they are harbouring. Hazard was a product of the French youth system; he trained from his teenage years with Lille. Kevin Mirallas also left his homeland at a young age. The likes of Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld benefited from an arrangement between Germinal Beerschot, their first club, and Ajax in Amsterdam; they are as much testament to the Dutch school of coaching as the Belgian.

That is not to say there are not fine people doing fine work to bring through young players in Belgium, or that there aren't a host of initiatives to help others follow that path. But it is undeniable and bordering on delusional to say that the emergence of Belgium's golden generation is somewhat down to pure chance.

Football, though, deliberately avoids the arbitrary. It is an article of faith among many in the game that all things happen for a reason. This explains why in England in particular, there is a proud tradition of trying to copy the French model, the German model, the Spanish model or the Dutch model but never, say, the Argentinean model, despite the fact that no country with such a small population produces quite so many high-class players.

This is because there is no Argentinean model. To paraphrase something Juan Pablo Angel said about Colombia, the talent "just grows there, there is no need for the best facilities." Nobody wants to think about youth development in Argentina because it suggests the existence of factors beyond your control. It suggests that not everything is transferable and that football is more than an arms race for knowledge and not everything is a lesson to be learned and mastered.

And so we come to the lesson that Leicester supposedly "teach." By virtue of the aforementioned statistics, Leicester apparently prove that passing is dead and show that all of the Premier League's big beasts are going wrong with their obsession with possession and their endless complex philosophies.

Direct, fast football is not just what fans want to see, but the best recipe for success. Perhaps now, thanks to Ranieri, we can get back to the sort of blood and thunder football that England has always produced. Stop passing immediately, Mesut Ozil, and launch the ball into the box!

Claudio Ranieri's Leicester simply play to their strengths. They don't copy, nor should they be copied.

As with youth development, though, the same is true with styles of play: There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. What works in Argentina does not necessarily work in Italy; what works for Leicester may not make Manchester City any better. Football's enduring appeal is testament to the fact that there is not a perfect way to play. It is not a problem to be solved, a tapestry to be elaborated. Ranieri himself has admitted as much.

"I would also like to keep possession of the ball," the Italian said in the autumn when this title race was just a distant, ridiculous dream. "But we don't have these characteristics in the team, so I prefer to go straight [to goal]."

In other words, he does not have the players to knock the ball about just as, say, Man City do not have the players to sit back and defend deep before pouncing on the counter-attack, or Liverpool do not have the players to impersonate Bayern Munich's tactical fluidity.

In fact, this where Leicester do offer us a lesson. What they have proved is that the key to success is emphasising your own strengths and compensating for your own weaknesses. It means playing in the way that suits your squad, not trying to imitate what others have done.

There is a logical fallacy at the heart of the theory that every club should seek to become Leicester. They demonstrate that the trend for copying Barcelona is flawed because not everyone can play like Barcelona. It follows, then, that not everyone can play like Leicester either.

In that sense, they are indeed a lesson, just not the one we have been told so far. If there is anything Leicester want us all to learn, it is that every team needs to be themselves.

Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.


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