From the outside, Claude Puel‘s run with Leicester City in the 2017-18 season could easily be viewed as a success; more goals scored, fewer goals conceded, a top half Premier League finish and quarterfinal defeats in both the FA Cup and League Cup. Add to that entertaining and impressive performances against Arsenal and Tottenham to end the season and you could be forgiven for thinking that all is well in the East Midlands. But look a little deeper and it’s apparent that there are big decisions to be made by the club and their owners over the summer, who are facing an important off-season.
Claude Puel and Leicester City: A club at a crossroads
Lack of Identity
Leicester’s title-winning game plan was simple yet effective; defensively solid, counter-attacking football with an unchanged core of the team which picked itself. The 2017/18 season was a tricky one for the East Midland side, as teams installed effective game plans, particularly the smaller sides, largely based around sitting deep and allowing the Foxes to have possession, preventing them from exploiting the space behind them as they had to such devastating effect in 2015-16.
This led to a disappointing domestic season, with the reigning champions finishing twelfth and dismissing beloved manager Claudio Ranieri, who was unable to adapt his side’s playing style. A year later, the problem remains unsolved. The addition of signings like Adrian Silva and Vicente Iborra were designed to help the transition to a possession-based approach. This change has not been as smooth as hoped, with frustrating results at home against the likes of Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Stoke City, and Swansea this season.
The Claude Puel question
Claude Puel’s arrival in October 2017 was greeted with a degree of scepticism following an uninspiring season at Southampton, with Saints fans warning of dull, defensive football. His tenure initially began successfully, with a high-tempo, entertaining style which brought the best out of Demarai Gray and Riyad Mahrez and impressive wins against Everton, Tottenham, and Newcastle as well as a thumping of Puel’s old employer’s Southampton just before Christmas.
After the win at Southampton however, the Foxes form and style of play deteriorated dramatically. They won just five of their remaining twenty league games, while the football became slow and the emphasis on possession over the top, with the number of shots and chances, created reducing significantly. Leicester were fourteenth in the form table from the game after that impressive win at Southampton to the end of the season, just three points above the bottom three (Premier League, transfermrkt.)
Since Puel’s first game in charge, the average possession per game has been 51%, compared to 46% the season before, whilst the average pass accuracy has also improved (Squawka). There is no question that he is trying to change the style of play at the King Power Stadium, a job which he has so far had to do with a large number of players who are not comfortable of playing his football, but it is this worrying slump in form and at times dull football which has caused large numbers of foxes fans to call for his dismissal.
The title-winning season was built around effective and low-cost recruitment such as the free transfer of Christian Fuchs and the additions of Robert Huth, Shinji Okazaki, and most impressively N’golo Kante. Previously, the French lower leagues had been used to unearth the talents of Riyad Mahrez and Anthony Knockaer for minimal fees. The Leicester scouting system was widely heralded as one of the best, and it was no surprise when chief scout Steve Walsh was poached by Everton.
In the four transfer windows since winning the league and Walsh’s departure, Leicester City has spent a net total of roughly £60 million. Despite this, the vast majority of the side throughout 2017-18 was made up of players from the title-winning campaign. This is in large part due to the disastrous recruitment since led by director of football John Rudkin and head of recruitment Eduardo Macia.
Of the seven permanent signings made during the summer and January transfer window of 2016-17, only one ended the season playing his football at Leicester (Wilfred Ndidi), with four of the signings with collective transfer fees in excess of £60 million (Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa, Namphalys Mendy, Bartosz Kaputska) out on loan and unlikely to play for the club again.
This season’s signings have been able to contribute more consistently; player’s player and fan’s player of the season Harry Maguire is an undoubted success, whilst January signing Fousenni Diabate has shown promise. The jury, however, remains out on Kelechi Iheanacho who has struggled to nail down a regular starting spot and Adrian Silva, who has been slow to adapt to the Premier League following his calamitous transfer and subsequent four-month spell in limbo. Both ended the season strongly and the Foxes will be hoping to get the best out of them on a more regular basis next season.
Player departures are unavoidable for all but the biggest clubs and Leicester are no different. Riyad Mahrez’s big money move is inevitable and well-deserved. Even though his forthcoming departure has been on the cards for a while, he will still leave an enormous void. Demarai Gray and Fousseni Diabete have both had bright spells during the season but neither has done enough to suggest they will be able to replace the volume of assists, goals and chances created that will be lost.
Furthermore, Harry Maguire, who has excelled in his debut season, playing every Premier League minute, has been heavily linked with a move to a Champions League team. Although Claude Puel has publically ruled out the centre back leaving, it will be interesting to see both the club and the player’s stance should a big money offer come in, particularly should he perform well at the World Cup. Maguire has been a pivotal part of the team this year and has been earmarked as the potential incumbent captain should Wes Morgan move on. His loss would be a devastating setback.
In addition to the potentially undesired losses is the clear need for change. The average age of the squad was the 15th oldest in the league this season (27.9). The core of the title-winning side remains intact but the likes of Wes Morgan and Danny Simpson don’t fit Puel’s playing style. Meanwhile, squad players like Yohann Benalouane, Andy King, Matty James, Leonardo Ulloa, Islam Slimani and Eldin Jakupovic have all featured sparsely this season. They clearly aren’t a part of Puel’s plans; however, they are all on big contracts which other sides may be reluctant to meet. Moving them on may prove difficult.
Leicester City are a club at a crossroads. Their identity and playing style is unclear and there are question marks around the manager’s future. Do they stick with Claude Puel and give him another transfer window and more time to make his impression on the team, or will the owner’s decide to move on and begin the search for their fourth manager in two years. Personally, I believe Puel deserves more time. The football has been dour at times but he has had the very difficult task of changing the team’s style with players who are not his own. If he does stay, he will be on a very short leash and a tough start to the new season could see his swift departure.
The loss of key players is inevitable and how well they are replaced will go a long way to deciding how successful or otherwise next season will be. This off-season will be pivotal and the decisions made could go a long way to shaping the club’s future.