It was October 16, 2017, when Leicester hosted West Brom and only narrowly escaped another disappointing defeat, Riyad Mahrez earning his team a point thanks to a late equalizer. After the game, the Foxes found themselves in the relegation zone eight weeks into the 2017/2018 season, and Craig Shakespeare was given his marching orders.
The team faced a tough calendar at the beginning of the season, but they played with no real idea to me. Shakespeare’s master plan didn’t seem to differ from good old memories of the golden season: give the ball to Jamie Vardy, Marc Albrighton, Riyad Mahrez or Shinji Okazaki and hope he can get the team mojo working. When they failed to do so, the whole team looked helpless. However, in all honesty, they never looked like a doomed squad and didn’t suffer a single heavy defeat. The biggest goal difference was recorded in the game against a then high-flying Manchester United team, and that was just 2-0.
Leicester’s Indian owners seemingly couldn’t bear a team with no identity, so they opted for a change. The switch materialized in Claude Puel, who apparently didn’t fly far away after being released from his Southampton contract at the end of the 2016/2017 campaign.
Who is Claude Puel?
Claude Puel played as a defensive midfielder, embodying the rare example of a one-team player, spending his whole professional career in Monaco. Together with his first managerial years, he spent 24 years there. Do you recall many professional players who were that loyal? Only Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, Barcelona’s Xavi and Manchester United’s duo Paul Scholes & Ryan Giggs come right away to my mind — honorable company, right?
Throughout his managerial career, Puel managed literally all of the French League giants but Paris-Saint Germain: Monaco (1999-2001), Lille (2002-2008), Lyon (2008-2011) and Nice (2015-2016). After he seemingly had enough of Ligue 1, Puel took a challenging task from departing Ronald Koeman, that of bringing high-flying Southampton to even grander peaks.
Judging by his results, you can’t say it was a dramatic failure. Nevertheless, an unlucky EFL Cup final defeat against Manchester United coupled with an eighth place Premier League position didn’t impress the demanding Saints’ owners, so Puel’s contract was terminated.
The Frenchman is known for his solid work with young players. Just check out a list of these well-known players who got their first big stage chances or became stars under Puel’s management:
- the cherry on Puel’s pie, 16-year-old Eden Hazard (now at Chelsea)
- 17-year-old Kevin Mirallas (Everton)
- 18-year-old Mathieu Debuchy (Arsenal), Johan Cabaye (Newcastle, PSG & Crystal Palace) & Miralem Pjanic (AS Roma & Juventus)
Honorable mention goes to such players as Mathieu Bodmer, Jean Makoun, Peter Odemwingie, Dante, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Michel Bastos and Maxime Gonalons.
How does Puel’s Southampton tenure compare against Leicester’s last two seasons?
Honestly speaking, I’m not a fan of statistics. Instead, I’m a strong believer that the true game of football is an art. Do you remember Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Ajax & AC Milan squads of the past? That’s not to forget about his current Manchester City team, of course. Aren’t they a pure joy to watch even for a non-football fan?
Nevertheless, as my manager keeps telling me at work, “Provide me with some numerical justification”, so here are some of the most important football metrics that can shed some light on the action points. These, in my view, define the team’s performance (KPIs, if you like):
Southampton under Puel (2016/2017)
- goals per match 1.08
- goals conceded per game 1.26
- tackle success 72%
- pass accuracy 80%
Leicester City (2017/2018 season so far*)
- goals per match 1.45
- goals conceded per game 1.45
- tackle success 70%
- pass accuracy 70%
*Data was taken from the Official Premier League website.
What to expect now?
Playing as a defensive midfielder for Monaco, Puel was known for his spirit and tackling skills. Arsene Wenger, under whom Puel had played in Monaco, was full of praise for Puel as a player and called him a fighter. With this said, I expect him first of all to tighten the Foxes’s leaky defense.
Secondly, how about an idea of Leicester’s owners being ready for a change? A change in style now I mean. It looked obvious in some games that the Foxes found it hard to unlock opponents, when they were forced to attack positionally. And it started happening too often.
It’s common knowledge that Leicester became Champions in 2015/16 due to the lightning-quick counter-attacking style and some defensive midfield magic from the pair of N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater. Leicester is still capable of counter-attacking, but the aforementioned pair has now successfully moved to London’s Chelsea. Looking at Southampton’s pass accuracy of 80% and Leicester’s average for the past two seasons and 10 games of this season being at 71%, I’m inclined to believe that Puel may try and present us with a new Leicester.
If fit and motivated, the Foxes have a flourishing and quick attacking line featuring Vardy, Mahrez, Demarai Gray, Okazaki, Iheanacho, Slimani and Ahmed Musa. I even think that Leonardo Ulloa is still somewhere in there, so one more of Ranieri’s aces is seated primarily on the bench this season. When in Southampton, Puel could almost never have fielded a consistent striking duo because both Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini looked like made of glass. If nothing extraordinary, as minimum, Leicester must be guaranteed to fire goals with the same consistency as now, meaning that their attacking options aren’t losing their value.
They are still too thin to me in the midfield area, so my money is on Puel to try to strengthen this position in the next transfer window. After Kante, Leicester’s heart and main shield, departed, all of the Fox’s flaws were quickly exposed. Wes Morgan can’t clear every ball, so he looks slow and grumpy. Harry Maguire keeps losing position, Danny Simpson can hardly defend, so he almost stopped going forward in order to cope with the direct duties in the back.
Leicester have Wilfred Ndidi, Vicente Iborra and Andrew King to cover the central part of the pitch for now, with an unlucky Portuguese international Adrien Silva (acquired this summer from Sporting) joining with a transfer window opening.
Long story short, Puel inherited a strong roster and should find that things will go smoother than during his Southampton’s tenure. In that respect, he has gotten off to a strong start.
Before you look at the player watch list below, in the Foxes’ situation it’s critical to consider their calendar. The next three games are tough, really tough: Leicester host the free-flowing attack of Manchester City, then travel to wounded West Ham where David Moyes is taking the helm, and third host Tottenham, led by Harry Kane. However, it all eases up right after that, and all of the picks you see below should live up to their full potential. They have home fixtures against Burnley and Palace along plus trips to Newcastle and Southampton.
Players to watch
Will defenders and keeper become an asset playing for a defensive-minded and result-oriented manager? Indeed, odds are high. Nevertheless, when playing the Official Fantasy Premier League you first want to ask, “How good is the chance of earning those six clean sheet points?” Second, you add in the odds of an assist or a goal from a corner kick or the penalty spot. With this in mind, I can’t recommend to blindly go all-in, but there is some great value:
Harry Maguire (5.1m) - Maguire was one of the only bright spots in Hull’s otherwise lackluster performance last year. Expected to make a swift return to the Premier League, he did not disappoint, joining Leicester City. It took him time to adapt to the style and demands of Shakespeare, but even with Leicester’s inconsistent clean sheet returns, Maguire managed to reward his owners with 4.27 points per game. I believe in Puel making the Foxes a better team in defense, a rising tide that will float Maguire’s boat by adding CS points to his already significant phantoms.
Ben Chilwell (4.3m) - Chilwell is one of the promising talents for England, earning a start in Puel’s first game in charge. He makes it into this list due to his new position on the pitch: attacking left wing. He looked lively, but picked up an injury and missed the next game against Stoke. Reports state that he should be available for the next game. He would be an attractive differential at his current sub-par price.
Kasper Schmeichel (5.0m) - Currently owned by only 4.3%, the Danish keeper could be a profitble differential. It may not be well known, but he has the second most saves among the Top 6 scoring goalkeepers with 36. Only fans favorite Nick Pope of Burnley has more (37). You should strongly consider him after the next three fixtures.
Looking at Southampton’s scoring results from last season, one fears that Puel could take Leicester a step back in the scoring department. However, I don’t see this happening; there is simply too much talent there now:
Riyad Mahrez (8.4m) - If you are brave enough and chasing the rankings, get him in right now. If you are feeling comfortable and don’t won’t to take the risk, wait three more game weeks and then grab him. The Foxes have hit seven goals in the last four games, and the Algerian has taken part in five. That’s 71% goal involvement. That puts him close to the form that won him PFA Player of the Season in 2015/16. In his first game under Puel, Mahrez started right behind Jamie Vardy and got an assist, while having 2-3 chances to score himself. At 5.1% ownership isn’t he a differential you have been looking for?
Jamie Vardy (8.6m) - The above-mentioned Vardy has had a mixed season so far. He started brilliantly, scoring five times in the first six games. He has cooled down since then, his sixth goal waiting until GW10. Nevertheless, he is still the quick, hard-working and explosive Jamie Vardy who scored 37 goals during the last two campaigns. I only see him improving from here, so be sure he is on your radar.
Demarai Gray (5.3m) - Gray is another young Englishman given a long-awaited starting spot in Puel’s first game. He has been anxiously waiting for his chance, and he might have it now. Deployed on the right, Gray took an active part in tearing apart the Everton defense, scoring a goal and earning two bonus points.
He showed his versatility when Chilwell’s injury moved him to the left against Stoke. Gray’s second game was far from perfection, and this inconsistency is the risk you take when considering him for your fantasy squad. He has yet to prove his potential, but he could be another phenomenal differential, costing you just a bit above five million and owned by only 1.1%. Given Puel’s propensity for unlocking a young talent, chances are high that Gray will improve.
Vicente Iborra (5.8m) - Vicente scored 14 goals in Sevilla’s two previous La Liga campaigns, captaining them as well. He is an extremely hard-working player who should be a great asset once 100% fit. Showcasing that promise against Stoke with a well-taken goal, he really should have had a brace or even a hat-trick if luckier. He was forced off the pitch after just 66 minutes but is expected to recover during the international break. The Spaniard has started the last four games and is known for his solid scoring record while playing in midfield. He can be a good alternative to the likes of Brighton’s Pascal Gross or Newcastle’s Matt Ritchie.
What do you make of the Claude Puel appointment? Is he a “real match” as stated by Leicester’s owners, or is he a poor fit? Can a coach with a defensive midfielder past produce an attractive football style? Are the likes of Mahrez, Vardy & Co. now back on your radar?
Let’s chat, and thank you for reading!