Saturday 24 June 2017

Foxes sniff out chance to make long-ball game pay dividends

Leicester City players celebrate after the game. Photo: Reuters
Leicester City players celebrate after the game. Photo: Reuters

Jonathan Liew

Up went the ball, into the night sky, and there it seemed to hang: spinning, swirling, planning, plotting.

Down below, Pablo Sarabia swirled underneath it, gauging its trajectory, unsure whether he wanted it to land or not.

Out of the corner of his eye, he would have seen Marc Albrighton and Wilfred Ndidi chasing him down like hungry hounds. Sarabia leapt, and so did they.

A dull thud of shoulders. The ball bounced out for a throw. Leicester v Sevilla was eight seconds old.

There is a sort of dark magic to the long ball, football's oldest tactic yet perhaps one of its least understood. You might even call it beauty: the fanciful optimism of relinquishing the ball at your feet and casting it to the skies, to the winds, to gravity, to randomness, to chaos.

You play the long ball when you want to entrust yourself to fate. You play it if you are feeling lucky.

Most football teams see chance as their enemy: the enemy of certainty, the enemy of control, the enemy of all those thousands of hours spent pausing and rewinding scouting videos, scrawling on chalkboards, training and drilling.

Not Leicester. They do all that stuff, too, of course, but they also know what you cannot control.

This is hardly surprising. When your 5,000/1 Premier League title shot has come in, then you are probably inclined to believe chance is your friend.

When the opposition are palpably better than you - with all due respect to your Danny Simpsons and Robert Huths - then chance is the leveller. When allied with a greasy pitch, a partisan crowd and an unshakeable belief, then chance is your best chance.

And so, having rolled the dice by changing their manager after the first leg, Leicester crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

Of course, for the long ball to work at this level you need your running game to be perfect. And here Leicester chased with the snap and the vigour of champions. At their best, they defend not in ones and twos but fives and sixes.

They hound you so relentlessly that often the only outlet is behind them. In other words, by playing a long ball over the top. And so effortlessly, almost imperceptibly, Leicester have coerced you into playing their game.

So, improbably, miraculously, Leicester fight on. Theirs is a simple but deceptively courageous ethos: get the ball in the air. Get in a block. Get in a tackle. Have a shot. Trust to fate.

And now fate, having delivered them a Premier League title, has delivered them into a Champions League quarter-final.

Telegraph.co.uk

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