Leicester City, reigning champions of England, proved to be a team of many talents last season. Their unique team spirit and relentless effort on the pitch were hallmarks of their success. Somewhat lost in the coverage of their unprecedented triumph, though, was a much less heralded, but equally important quality: versatility.
The notion that a club lauded for its consistent player selection relied on versatility may sound counterintuitive, but trust me, it makes sense.
Sir Claudio seems to be a man who knows what he wants, this much was made clear by his selections. But if you look deeper you’ll find that his preferred players offered him the greatest flexibility.
Players like Daniel Amartey, Jeff Schlupp, Shinji Okazaki, and Riyad Mahrez played many positions en route to the title last season; not only from one game to the next, but within each game.
Schlupp embodies the traditional sporting definition of versatility - he can play two positions, sometimes three. He started last season as the club’s number one left back, but evolved into a wide midfielder as it progressed. Still, he can fill-in at either position whenever needed or further up the pitch on occasion.
Daniel Amartey, however, may be the most notable in regards to his versatility. He serves as the club’s human Swiss Army knife and Ranieri explained as much when City signed the Ghanaian in January.
"He can play centre-back, right-back, central midfield and on the right-wing,” he said, “It's important to have one player who will permit me to change something in the match.”
This quote is important because it shows how much Claudio values versatility. He points to his ability to change things during a match as a positive available to him thanks to this trait.
Off the bench, Amartey can provide cover in the case of injury or fatigue. But he also provides the manager with more tactical freedom. This is a characteristic that has possibly put him in line to fill the N’Golo Kanté-sized hole in the midfield, which we’ve already seen this season.
Shinji Okazaki and Riyad Mahrez offer a different kind of versatility. While they begin each game in the same “positions,” it’s their on-field positioning that changes.
Shinji has become the first-choice strike partner for Jamie Vardy and thrived in that role, though you wouldn’t know it from his goal tallies. This is because the value he brings lies in his work rate and, yes, versatility.
Although he’s capable of playing as a traditional striker, he is at his best playing a deeper role. His tireless running allows him to play deeper, but still provide an attacking spark. He frequently takes up space in-between the defense’s lines, allowing him to operate freely and lure defenders out of position. This approach frees up his teammates and is partly responsible for their goal tallies. In the absence of Jamie Vardy, however, he can still take the reins and be a more proactive number nine.
Everyone’s favorite footballing magician Riyad Mahrez floats around the pitch like a positionless creator at times. He may be the designated right winger, but when the team needs some creativity he can slide inside, forward, or backward. Against teams who play a low-block he may drop deeper to receive possession and subsequently run at the defense with the ball at his feet. Against teams who control possession more or play with higher lines he can make runs in behind the defense, or cut-in and overload central attacking areas.
Overall, his ability to play anywhere along the attack allows him to find pockets of space, passing lanes, and loads of goals.
The summer signings only further the belief that versatility is a quality Claudio Ranieri actively seeks. Ahmed Musa, Luis Hernandez, and Bartosz Kapustka are all capable of playing more than one position as well. This proves that Leicester plans to move forward with the same strategy that brought them so much success last year.
When the Foxes lifted the trophy at the end of last season it signified the ultimate reward for the most unlikely, yet most deserving squad in England. The number of positives that went into the title-winning campaign is almost immeasurable. None, though, were more important than the unique vision of the man in charge.
Ranieri managed to see and unlock the power of flexibility inside of stability. He somehow saw many different players within each of the ones he already coached. This is a gift that should be recognized.
So cheers to Sir Claudio. Thank you for your brilliance.