Get all of Ben Lyttleton’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
No Jamie Vardy, no party. Premier League leader Leicester City has started with its top scorer in every league game this season, which is why his suspension against Swansea this weekend could be so decisive. Of the other key players in Leicester’s mind-boggling campaign–or at least those recognized by their peers and in the running for the Player of the Year award–Riyad Mahrez (32 starts) and N’Golo Kante (29) have only missed three full games between them.
The success of Claudio Ranieri’s side is based on stability, the opposite of his "Tinkerman" reputation. Seven of his players have started at least 32 of their 34 Premier League games this season, and in the last 14 games, Ranieri has picked the same side 12 times.
Vardy’s suspension throws into the spotlight Leonardo Ulloa, who began last season as the first-choice center forward but has had to become used to a new role this year. The Argentine sums up Leicester’s unsung-hero mentality. He has never complained about his bench-warmer status and even confessed he was stunned that Leicester paid £8 million for him.
Ulloa has scored some vital goals this season, notably his last-minute winner against Norwich last month, and last weekend’s nerveless penalty equalizer against West Ham. Brighton, who sold him 18 months ago, could never have imagined that he would become a Premier League champion, or at least be in in position to claim that with four games left in the campaign. You’d expect the £2 million add-on clause to the fee to kick in soon enough.
But Leicester's depth in contributors goes well beyond that. Everywhere you look, there are unlikely and unsung heroes.
Does the career path of Danny Simpson–Manchester United-Newcastle-QPR, via some front-page tabloid headlines–point to a future champion? What about Christian Fuchs, who bombed out of Schalke last season and is now a cult hero at Leicester for his social media videos with his teammates? Or Shinji Okazaki, signed from Mainz last summer and whose work rate and movement are the ideal complements to Vardy?
The team’s attitude is best summed up by Robert Huth, the German defender whose last proper interview, in English (this does not include post-match soundbites), was eight years ago. He is not interested in self-promotion. He did speak to German magazine 11 Freunde earlier this season but gave nothing away. In fact the best line came from journalist Christoph Biermann, who compared him to Popeye: “You can imagine his head carved in stone,” he wrote. “His neck is massive, his shoulders as wide as a cupboard, his body could hide a bank vault.”
Then there is Danny Drinkwater, described by Vardy as “the puppet master … the one who holds all the strings and makes sure he pulls everyone into the right places.” He spent 13 years at Manchester United, growing up playing for youth teams with Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, and moving to four different clubs on loan. While at the last of those, Barnsley, United accepted an offer for him from Leicester, who were then mid-table in the Championship.
Drinkwater called the moment United accepted the offer as his lowest point in football (his teammates Simpson and Matty James were also ex-United youngsters).
And that’s the common thread within this Leicester team. They are not bound together by the brilliance of Vardy, Mahrez and Kante, but by a mutual desire to prove people wrong: Marc Albrighton, released by his hometown club Aston Villa without an explanation, Kasper Schmeichel let go by Manchester City, Huth deemed surplus to requirements by Stoke, and of course Vardy, who languished in non-league play until 2012.
It’s the same story, all the way through the team, and it even includes the manager. Huth would probably confirm as much as well, if only he gave interviews.