How far can Claude Puel take Leicester?
Nine games into the 2017/18 season Leicester City was 14th. The Foxes had won twice, drawn three and been defeated four times. They had sacked Craig Shakespeare. Less than two years after winning the Premier League they were searching for a third manager (counting Claudio Ranieri).
Although Kelechi Iheanacho hadn’t done anything to validate his £25 million fee, attack was not the problem. With 12 goals the side was scoring better than one per game. The problem was they had conceded 14.
The board quickly settled on Claude Puel to succeed Shakespeare. The Frenchman had been sacked in the summer by Southampton because a) it made for a decent tongue-twister and b) his tactics were too defensive for a club spoiled by Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino. Puel’s organisation and discipline were just what the Foxes needed, however, if they were to consider raiding the Premier League hen-house again.
This was the same boss who had won Ligue 1 with an upstart Monaco side nearly two decades before Leonardo Jardim. He had taken lightweights Lille to second and third in 2003/04 and ‘04/05 respectively. Consecutive Champions League appearances came with those finishes, and a famous group stage win over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United in 2005. Puel took Lyon all the way to the semi-final in 2010.
In an era when ‘positive’ football is all the rage the Frenchman's tactics labeled him as a boss who might stabilise a Premier League side. Advancing it was another matter. The club’s quick turnaround has thus been something of a surprise.
Yesterday’s 2-0 win over Watford, combined with Burnley’s defeat to United, lifted the Foxes into seventh. In the fifteen games since he assumed command Leicester has accumulated 25 points, ranking it sixth over that stretch pending Tottenham’s result against Southampton today.
In the full table seventh is some distance from the top six. From October 25th, when Puel was hired, Arsenal and Tottenham have lagged behind their brethren, bringing the Foxes into the mix. Roy Hodgson has been nearly as good with Crystal Palace, claiming 22 points over the same stretch. He first needed a month to get the Eagles organised however.
Puel’s performance coupled with his past success invites the question whether he can make Leicester a factor in next year’s campaign when starting on level terms. He has essentially reversed the team’s numbers in attack and defence. Whereas Craig Shakespeare had the squad scoring 1.3 goals per game while conceding 1.6, Puel’s respective numbers are 1.6 and 1.2.
Riyad Mahrez has rediscovered form. The Algerian finished off Watford in added time after Jamie Vardy had converted a first-half penalty. With the upturn in fortunes at the club he may change his mind about leaving. If that is the case Puel is arguably one more attacker away from contending for a Champions League place.
It is then down to Director of Football Jon Rudkin and the board to give the Frenchman greater support than Ranieri and Shakespeare received. Whether they will is questionable. Although Puel was the instant favourite to take over at the King Power, it took eight days, mostly spent negotiating the power name his own backroom staff rather than having caretaker boss and Shakespeare assistant Michael Appleton foisted on him. In the end a compromise was agreed wherein Puel’s choice, Pascal Plancque, and Appleton would share the role.
Appleton deserved loyalty. For that matter so did Shakespeare and Ranieri before him. Yet Puel being permitted to name only one assistant in his staff suggests he did not enjoy complete trust when coming on board. There is a limit to what a manager can do when he is not backed by the club. Ask Antonio Conte. Will Puel win over the board by season’s end or will Rudkin and Co continue to stand in their own way?