Pressure can do funny things to players as the battle for a title goes down to the wire, particularly if you have never been in that situation before, but Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri has proven that his mastery of psychology should be enough to avoid any slip-ups with three games to go.
This is a side which, Robert Huth apart, have no top-flight title-winning experience, has players drawn from lower leagues such as Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante, and have narrowly avoided relegation from the Premier League last season.
While the whole world seems to be excited about football’s most unexpected triumph, Ranieri’s masterstroke has been tapping into his team’s humble backgrounds, spreading that humility in the media and delaying talk about title ambitions until the last few games.
By doing that, he has been very clever as the mindset shifts from ‘nothing to lose’ to a ‘fear of failure’ which can cripple some players. I know from personal experience that, getting that close to a league title and then losing it in the last few games would be seen as choking, and the players would know it.
Chelsea Ladies were accused of that when we lost the Women’s Super League title on the final day of the 2014 season. We turned up to face Manchester City thinking they had nothing to play for and were beaten 2-1 to lose the title on goal difference. Complacency cost us that day.
Then during the week before last season’s FA Cup final, I was feeling the pressure so much that I wasn’t my usual self. I struggled to relax, to laugh or smile and the only way I could relieve it was by turning to yoga and my faith. In the end, it worked as we won our first trophy, and the lessons learned from both experiences helped us win our first Women’s Super League title last season too.
Leicester do not have the advantage of being in this position before, which makes their march to their first Premier League title even more remarkable.
People mocked Ranieri’s appointment last summer but in addition to his tactical nous, he has carefully choreographed his message to players, fans and media, therefore tempering his team’s expectations and showing up plenty of other managers who have previously been in the same situation. Former Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan springs to mind.
Players hang on every word their manager says to the media and Ranieri’s happy-go-lucky demeanour has allowed them to enjoy their football. Anything they achieve was seen as a bonus.
I don’t think the players would have reacted well if the Italian started talking about reaching the Champions League once they reached the Premier League summit in November. Instead, Ranieri has acted with humility and kept the targets realistic and focussed.
Fortunately for Leicester, Tottenham’s draw with West Brom has lifted the pressure a little with the Foxes only needing one win from their last three games.
Had Spurs won on Monday, it would have been a very interesting run-in particularly as I think Leicester might struggle to win at Manchester United on Sunday. However, even if that happens, the league leaders still have two games against Everton and Chelsea to wrap it up, and neither have anything to play for.
That’s a big advantage to a team who have defied expectations all campaign and after Chelsea’s Eden Hazard’s wish that Tottenham don’t win the title, the last game of the season might yet be an interesting one if it gets that far.
Ranieri showing up Wenger
Ranieri is a great example of how the psychology of a manager is tantamount to the performance of the players and although it’s a contrasting case, I think it’s also evident with the Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger.
Here is a team cast as perennial runners-up to the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City, and yet in a season where they have all faltered, Leicester and Tottenham have usurped the Gunners relegating them to their usual fight for fourth place.
Their plight reminds me of a cutting message that our manager Emma Hayes delivered after we lost 4-0 to Sunderland last season. After an unbeaten first half of our season, she was concerned complacency may stuff up a title challenge for a second consecutive season so she reminded us of a quote which said: “The first mistake is a lesson, the second is a choice”.
Successful managers have to be ruthless in ridding their team of complacency and while Ranieri has backed his team publicly all season, there have been several stories proving that he doesn’t indulge his players. I’m not sure the same can be said of Wenger.
Newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year Mahrez admitted earlier in the season that despite all his goals and assists, he feared being withdrawn from the team if he didn’t do his defensive duties, while Danny Simpson has said Ranieri sits him down and shows him in minute detail where he wants his right-back to stand while defending in each game.
You can’t tell me that Arsenal’s squad is weaker than Leicester’s yet there is a psychological barrier which I think emanates from the manager. They seem to lack backbone in pressure games each season and yet Wenger seems to let his team get away with it. Is he challenging the players psychologically in the dressing room or just allowing them to make the same mistakes?
Whatever is happening, they are getting the same results and the clubs seems content with only reaching the top four, a story repeated over the past 10 seasons. To me, that’s a choice.
Who are the next Leicester?
The worrying aspect for Arsenal is that Leicester’s success will only help to inspire other Premier League teams next season. “Doing a Leicester” will now be coined in English football history to motivate teams with lesser resources.
They will look at the Foxes’ excellent scouting network, their use of sport science and periodisation methods to keep injuries to a minimum, and a new bumper TV deal to improve their chances of breaking into the top four as Leicester have done.
I’m not sure that Ranieri’s team will be able to match their efforts this season as they aim to combine Premier League, Champions League and cup football. I also think there will be some big teams who may tempt their star players.
But if you look at where Leicester were last season, they avoided relegation with a game to spare, and two seasons ago were in the Championship, so who can emulate them next season?
Leicester’s tale of the unexpected has eclipsed many success stories this season, including Slaven Bilic’s West Ham, who are sixth in the table, and Bournemouth, who are superbly coached by Eddie Howe.
Like Leicester, the Cherries have survived in the Premier League after being promoted as champions the previous season, but their first campaign in the top flight has been a better achievement given the fact they are already safe, have a comparative lack of resources, and having had serious injuries to some of their top players including Callum Wilson and Max Gradel.
Howe gets his team to play fast, attacking football and I think he’s good enough to be a future England manager. He’s on course to finish as the top English manager in the Premier League too.
It sounds crazy to suggest it, but after the season we have experienced, who’s to say that Bournemouth can’t do a Leicester next season or at least reach the Champions League?
This season has turned expectations on their head.
England and Chelsea forward Eniola Aluko was speaking to BBC Sport’s Alistair Magowan