Claude Puel has led Leicester City from fourteenth to three points off a Europa League spot since taking over from Craig Shakespeare in October. Here, we look at how he’s achieved it.
Originally viewed as an uninspiring choice, Puel has more than proven his credentials since taking over at the King Power Stadium, showing why some Southampton fans were disappointed to see him leave in the summer. The recent 4-1 victory over the Frenchman’s old side must have been a particular highlight of his time in the East Midlands so far.
When Puel arrived at the King Power, Leicester had just nine points from nine games and were languishing at the wrong end of the table. Since then, they’ve taken 22 points from 14 games, only one less than Arsenal and two less than Tottenham in the same period.
It is, of course, not unusual for a manager appointed mid-season to oversee an upturn in results. This season alone, Roy Hodgson, David Moyes and Sam Allardyce have also had a positive effect since being appointed by Crystal Palace, West Ham and Everton respectively.
It is too early to judge Carlos Carvalhal after just three league games in Swansea City, but both they and Stoke City, who appointed Paul Lambert as Mark Hughes’ successor on Monday, will be hoping the trend continues.
The anomaly is Alan Pardew, who’s struggled since taking over at West Brom.
So what exactly has Puel changed? Well, for one, he has shown greater faith in some of the squad’s younger players than his predecessor had, with Demarai Gray and Ben Chilwell being two of the biggest beneficiaries.
Gray was a serial substitute at the start of the season, coming off the bench for the first six games, but since the arrival of Puel he’s made nine starts and featured in every game.
Chilwell, meanwhile, was very much second choice behind Christian Fuchs under Shakespeare, but he has played the full 90 minutes five times in the last couple of months. A slightly harsh red card in Saturday’s draw with Chelsea will hopefully not derail the young left-back too much.
Puel has also got the best out of Riyad Mahrez. The Algerian started the season slowly and netted just once before the change of manager, but he has been given more freedom under Puel and has recaptured his form from Leicester’s title-winning season.
His combined 14 goals and assists can be bettered by just six players in the league; his seven assists bettered by only three. Leicester will do well to hold onto their prized asset until the end of the transfer window.
From a tactical point of view, the formation and style of play hasn’t changed too drastically, with Puel making just a couple of tweaks. He favours a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 that is flexible depending on the opposition and type of game.
The revitalised Vicente Iborra, and more recently Matty James, alongside the impressive Wilfred Ndidi in central midfield provides a basis for the attacking players ahead of them.
Away from home against the bigger teams, Leicester still rely on a counter-attacking style that has served them so well in the past – only two sides have made more fast breaks this season (Spurs and Liverpool).
The below graphic shows the players’ individual average positions from the recent 2-1 defeat at Anfield.
The side drops deep, leaving just Jamie Vardy (9) up the pitch, ready for the long ball forward to start the counter attack. The rest of the team are predominantly in their own half, with the two wide players – in this instance Riyad Mahrez (26) and Marc Albrighton (11) – dropping back to help the midfield.
Demarai Gray (7), who’s playing just behind the striker, also filters back to turn what looks like a 4-2-3-1 on paper into more of a 4-5-1.
However, Puel has shown he is willing to adapt his tactics on a game-by-game basis, as shown by the 3-2 win against Newcastle at St James’ Park in December.
He backed his side to have the lion’s share of position and instructed them to play more on the front foot. The whole team was further up the pitch, with the obvious difference being how close the two strikers are, looking more like a 4-4-2.
In this game, Leicester recorded 562 passes, the most the Foxes have ever managed in a Premier League game, highlighting their dominance.
It’s at the King Power where Puel has made the biggest changes, with four wins from his seven matches there, including against Spurs, plus a last-minute draw with Manchester United.
In the past, with a preference of sitting deep and countering, Leicester have sometimes come unstuck when they’re tasked with forcing the issue and taking the game to the opposition. But that’s not been the case under Puel.
In the most recent home win against Huddersfield they took the game to the opposition, pushing the wide players – Marc Albrighton (11) and Riyad Mahrez (26) – extremely far up the pitch, turning the formation into a very attacking 4-2-4 formation.
Puel has retained Leicester’s counter-attacking ability but improved their all-round play when the opposition are sitting deep. He’s added something extra to their arsenal and given chances to the squad’s younger players.
The Premier League top six has a very settled look at the moment, but with Leicester just three points behind Burnley in seventh, a good second half of the season could see European football back at the King Power once against next year.
By Dan Clark