Over the last few years, the idea of ‘philosophy’ has become an obsession in the Premier League.
Terms like ‘style of play’ and ‘identity’ previously sufficed, but ‘philosophy’ is now the unequivocal phraseology and comes with its own set of connotations, most commonly the idea of technical, intellectual and possession-based football – sharing the same principles that made Barcelona one of the greatest and successful club sides of all time under Pep Guardiola.
No Premier League manager has championed the term more than Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal, a graduate of the Total Football school of thought who helped inspire Barca’s definitive style. ‘Philosophy’ was his loudest soundbite upon ascending to the Old Trafford throne in summer 2014, his essential mandate to rule, and has been discussed relentlessly by the Dutchman, his supporters and his critics ever since.
We’re now at a point where every debate regarding the Red Devils, big or small, has the LVG ‘philosophy’ at its epicentre, with every victory evidence of its virtues and every defeat proof of its flaws.
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Yet the idea that there is a ‘right way’ to play the game, not to mention the financial sacrifices United have made to help van Gaal implement it at Old Trafford, is being undermined weekly by the Premier League’s surprise package of the season – shock table-toppers Leicester City.
There are countless differences between the two sides. One has dominated the Premier League for almost its entirety, the other has participated in under half of its 24 seasons and re-emerged from the Championship just 18 months ago. One manager prides himself on the ideal of dominating possession and has spent £250million overhauling his squad accordingly, the other has made minor, almost indistinguishable changes to a team he inherited barring a handful of low-cost additions last summer.
Yet there are just three points and three positions separating them in the Premier League table and counter-intuitively, it’s the latter club – the other – who are sitting pretty at the division’s summit. Rather than searching for some higher, intellectual appreciation of their way of playing, Leicester City are taking the English top flight by storm with honest, simple and effective football.
That couldn’t be more evident than in the statistics. Fourth-placed Manchester United have averaged the most possession, 60%, the second-highest pass success rate, 84%, and recorded the second-most passes, 8443, of any Premier League side this season.
Yet their dominance of the ball, as van Gaal adores, hasn’t proved particularly fruitful at the other end of the pitch or in terms of recent results. United rank 15th in terms of created chances throughout the division, just 121 in 15 games, and have scored the fewest goals, 20, of any side in the top six, whilst enduring five scoreless draws, three defeats and just four wins in their last eleven games.
Leicester City, in dramatic contrast, have recorded the second-least passes, 5100, averaged the third-lowest possession, 44.2%, and the worst pass success rate, 71.2%, of any side in the division, but they’ve created the seventh-most chances, 163, racked up the third-most assists, 22, scored the most goals, 32, and resultantly claimed the most points, 32. They’ve lost just one league fixture this season and claimed six wins from their last eight outings.
Of course, every side has a philosophy whether they use that phrase or not. Leicester City’s is centred around counter-attacking and the relentless energy of their front-line. But their meteoric rise proves that there is no indisputable answer in football – no set of ideas that are intrinsically stronger, more effective or virtuous than the other – and the notion that United must play in a specific way, ‘the right way’, verges upon irreverent vanity.
Likewise, despite Leicester’s incredible successes this season, manager Claudio Ranieri is yet to utter a word about his footballing ideals, because he did not arrive at the King Power Stadium last summer with a specific philosophy in mind. There is an old adage that the players must decide the system rather than their manager and that process has allowed the Foxes’ game to naturally develop over the last four months.
It would be inaccurate and superficial to ignore other factors. Leicester’s great escape at the end of last season has clearly bound the players closer together and given them a new sense of confidence, which has snowballed with every emphatic performance under Ranieri. Likewise, Jamie Vardy’s record-breaking purple patch is one of the most incredible the Premier League has ever witnessed, whilst Riyad Mahrez is rapidly emerging as amongst the division’s leading attacking talents – a real find at £400k.
But the secret to Leicester City’s recent success is the discovery of their own way of playing; Manchester United, on the other hand, are trying to adopt somebody else’s and moving only away from their historic DNA. Philosophy for the sake of philosophy is a fool’s game and right now, Leicester are making Louis van Gaal look quite the fool for sticking with his so religiously.