Why Claude Puel is collateral damage in Leicester’s unfamiliar journey
After seven games played, Leicester City sit eighth in the Premier League. They are three points behind Tottenham in fourth, having already faced two of the pre-season title favourites.
This comes after losing their most talented attacking player in the summer, and while trying to blend in a number of new players. The 10 outfielders who began their last home game started only 141 league games for Leicester last season; Harry Maguire, Jamie Vardy and Wilfred Ndidi accounted for 108. By any reasonable expectation, it has been a positive start to 2018/19.
Claude Puel is also the fifth favourite to be the next Premier League manager to lose his job. An exhaustive list of those available at shorter prices consists of the crisis-stricken Jose Mourinho and the managers in charge of clubs in 16th, 18th and 19th in the table. To repeat: Leicester are eighth.
If Puel has good reason to be surprised by his fragile job security, he’s probably getting used to it. After Leicester lost 4-2 at Bournemouth last month, conceding three times in the first 40 minutes, the Frenchman's continued employment was called into question. After Leicester lost their opening game of the season to Manchester United, a Daily Mirror story suggested that Puel had three games to save his job. Happy new season, everyone.
Supporters might even have expected Puel to have been removed from his position over the summer after Leicester lost five of their last seven league games. For balance, he took the Foxes to ninth after Craig Shakespeare had left them in 18th.
Puel is not blameless in his own fragility. The defeat to Bournemouth was defensively shambolic, and there are reasonable questions about his refusal to try a three-man central defence with Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira as natural wing-backs. His tenure has also been marked by fits and starts. From mid-November, Leicester’s run of league results were as follows: five unbeaten, four without a win, three unbeaten, five without a win, two consecutive wins, five without a win. The suspicion from some supporters is that results seem to happen to Puel’s Leicester, rather than them forcing the issue.
And yet it's hard to deny that Puel has answered his critics’ questions. At Southampton, the accusation was that the Frenchman played dull, negative football. Despite finishing eighth, his side scored more goals only than the bottom five, and Nathan Redmond was their top league goalscorer with seven.
Since taking over in October 2017, only Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea have scored more Premier League goals than Leicester. They do rank 11th for chances created and ninth for shots on target, but life has hardly been dull. When Puel celebrates his first anniversary at the King Power later this month, however, there will be few champagne corks popped.
This is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having been appointed by a club struggling to avoid a relegation dogfight, Puel inevitably became sold as a mid-season firefighter. But firefighters put out the fire and leave; they do not make themselves at home. It is incredibly difficult for managers to alter their reputations once they have been cast. If Leicester saw Puel as a substitute teacher, Puel is a substitute teacher.
But the 57-year-old's struggle for permanence also highlights Leicester’s wrestle with their own identity. Every unfancied club dreams of Leicester's unfathomable success; there is far less guidance for what comes next. What happens when the peak of your existence has already happened?
Weight of history
Everywhere you go at the King Power, you bump into reminders of Leicester’s annus mirabilis. The press room is adorned with newspaper cuttings of the squad lifting the Premier League trophy. The club megastore still sells commemorative merchandise. Before every home game, a video plays on the big screen to remind supporters of their season in the sun. The montage ends with Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan, N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez et al.
But that’s precisely the problem: it all did end with them. Leicester can hardly be blamed for celebrating such magnificent overachievement so readily, but those newspaper cuttings and videos are both a reminder of what once was and what can never be again. Football is not a sport in which perfection is attainable, but Leicester came closer than most.
When you stand at the top of your highest mountain and enjoy the view, the only way is down. Kaiserslautern, shock Bundesliga champions in 1997/98, had fallen into the second tier by 2006. Hellas Verona won the Scudetto in 1985 but were relegated in 1990.
AZ Alkmaar won the Eredivisie in 1981 but went down in 1988. Nottingham Forest continue to simultaneously embrace their glorious past and yet be strangled by the pressure it has created. History is littered with clubs that achieved the unthinkable, but then struggled to deal with the subsequent sound of silence.
From the moment their Champions League campaign ended against Atletico Madrid in April 2017, Leicester were destined to exist in an ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ haze. That must be suffocating for those players left behind, but also for every manager appointed and asked to re-bottle lightning. Leicester’s owners do not expect to win the league again, but glory is a drug. You can't blame them for chasing the dragon.
If that chase is ultimately a forlorn one, it only makes the experience itself more important. Puel is a manager who builds the house rather than hosts the parties. Since beating Tottenham in his fifth match in charge, Puel has won one and lost five of his eight league games against the Big Six. There’s nothing quite as deflating as the realisation that you aren’t special anymore.
But Puel is not the cause of Leicester’s peculiarity, merely a symptom of it. He was tasked with providing stability; it isn’t his fault that stability isn’t much fun when compared with what came before. After the fireworks and champagne and long nights of summer, glory leaves behind an odd residue. Leicester face an unfamiliar journey, with or without Claude Puel.