Chris Young: Five lessons Sunderland can draw from champions-elect Leicester
In these days of micro-analysing every possible twist and turn in the relegation battle, Tottenham's choking attempt to remain in the title race against West Brom felt like a blow for Sunderland.
With Leicester only requiring another three points to lift the Premier League crown, Spurs’ challenge looks redundant – and that could have repercussions on Sunderland’s survival bid.
If Spurs are confined to the runners-up spot by the time they head to St James’s Park on the final day, what kind of mood will they be in against a Newcastle side who will hope to still be in the survival race by that point?
These are the ‘if, but and maybe’ conversations which will remain around water coolers and bar-rooms throughout the next three weeks.
But Sunderland’s own worries shouldn’t detract from the fairytale transformation of Leicester City.
On that harrowing opening day at the King Power Stadium, Leicester maintained the momentum from last season’s salvage job, yet it was still unimaginable for them to be crowned Premier League champions nine months later, particularly as Sunderland had been such powder-puff opposition.
What have Leicester done so well in their second season back in the top flight, that Sunderland have fallen short on during nine years at this level? Certainly, money is not the issue, with less investment on transfer fees and wages than at the Stadium of Light.
Here are five things that Sunderland can learn from Leicester’s meteoric rise:
1. Get the recruitment right
Sunderland’s masterclass in squandering millions in the transfer market has become infamous, with big fees on the likes of Jozy Altidore, Jack Rodwell and Jeremain Lens bringing minimal return.
There is a genuine issue for Sunderland in attracting players to the North East, while the Black Cats’ prudent policy of having relegation wage reduction clauses in every contract can put some targets off.
But the deepest recesses of Ellis Short’s cheque book don’t need to be reached to bring in good players (Sam Allardyce has shown that already after the bargain £750,000 January capture of Jan Kirchhoff).
Leicester were one of the bigger spenders in the Championship, but they landed Jamie Vardy for just £1million and have continued to snap up bargains since promotion – Riyad Mahrez for £500,000 and the hugely impressive N’Golo Kante for £5m.
Get the recruitment right, and the rest usually follows.
2. Organise an appropriate pre-season
It’s no coincidence that Sunderland and Newcastle have both endured a wretched campaign after facing the draining schedule of a trans-Atlantic pre-season.
Sunderland’s squad endured six flights in less than a fortnight during their tour of North America – which left them knocking off the jet-lag, rather than the summer’s rust – and played three not particularly useful friendlies over that side of the pond.
As a result, the Black Cats squad were severely under-cooked when the campaign started.
In contrast, Leicester played seven friendlies all in the Midlands and were full of running in those early stages of the season, when they set the foundations for banishing any relegation fears.
Even now, Leicester’s superior energy levels shine through, with their pressing game – most notably Kante – at the core of their success.
3. Build solid foundations
Nigel Pearson appeared to have been sacked, and then re-hired, prior to Leicester’s remarkable escape last season, before eventually losing his job after a scandal involving his son during the club’s post-season tour to Thailand.
But while Pearson’s public persona was odd, particularly when he was comparing journalists to ostriches, he still laid the groundwork for Claudio Ranieri’s remarkable impact in his return to English football.
Pearson had four years to lay a strategy in place which was to take Leicester from League One back to the Premier League.
In the last four-and-a-half years, Sunderland have had SIX managers.
4. Play to your strengths
In the second half of the season, Leicester have not played with the panache or flair of a Tottenham or Arsenal. They’ve been far more practical.
Yet Ranieri has simply made the most of those at his disposal:
Sitting deep with an experienced, well-drilled defence, rather than have their lack of pace exposed with a high line.
Chipping balls in behind the opposition back-line to exploit fleet-of-foot pair Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki.
And allowing a pair of midfield tigers, Kane and Danny Drinkwater, to harass and press the opposition at every opportunity, before launching fresh waves of lethal counter-attacks.
It’s back to basics football, but it’s darn effective.
5. Having a settled team
Sunderland’s current run of four games with an unchanged XI is their longest sequence since the Great Escape under Gus Poyet in May 2015.
Poyet, Dick Advocaat and then Allardyce subsequently went 18 months without maintaining the same side, with the constant tinkering and search for Sunderland’s strongest line-up prompting evident results.
Leicester have barely had any injury worries – and Vardy’s suspension this month is the first time he has been missing – but having a team where every player knows his job and the merits of those alongside him produces a far more harmonious threat.