Why Claude Puel is the perfect manager for Leicester City
The Frenchman's unspectacular style may not have been enough for Southampton but it should be perfect for the Foxes
During Claude Puel’s 17-year playing career, the entirety of which was spent at Monaco, he was regarded as a reliable yet unspectacular player.
He was a defensive midfielder, specialising in preventing the opposition from expressing themselves, but doing so with such quality that he won two domestic Ligue 1 titles plus three Coupe de France crowns. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was among his admirers.
Now Puel has long graduated to the dugout, recently taking charge of Leicester City following the sacking of Craig Shakespeare. The 56-year-old has spent nearly 20 years of his life as a head coach, starting out at Monaco before bouncing around some of France’s top sides before making the move to England with Southampton in the summer of 2016.
His pragmatic character, however, has not changed. He remains primarily focused on doing the simple things well and building around that. Indeed, when he first broke into coaching, it was as a fitness trainer – a fitting occupation given his personality.
For Saints, it was not enough but for Leicester it promises to be perfect.
Despite overseeing the St Mary’s side’s push to eighth in the Premier League standings, he was fired at the end of the season amid a concern that he did not play exciting enough football for them.
Clearly, they had not done their research on the Frenchman. Although his Nice side the previous season had been exciting to watch, largely because of Puel’s ability to get the best from Hatem Ben Arfa, he used offensive tactics because he was aware that was where his side’s strength lay. At St Mary’s, however, that distinction was not nearly so clear-cut.
While Puel lost his job, Southampton, now managed by Mauricio Pellegrino, have paid this season by dropping into the lower half of the table with just three wins from 11 matches. And to add insult to injury, they are now scoring at a slower rate than they managed under their previous boss.
Indeed, the Frenchman finds himself above his former club on goal difference.
At Leicester, he finds himself at a side with no airs and graces. The Foxes are a team that knows the value of a 1-0 victory, having claimed an unforgettable Premier League crown under Claudio Ranieri, whose guile in terms of manufacturing results from tight games was second to none.
Puel might not have the Italian’s stature, but he offers a similar mindset and that was, no doubt, an attraction for the King Power side.
And he is approaching the job in Leicester in a typically open-minded manner. After two matches in charge, he has plundered four points by defeating Everton 2-0 and then drawing with Stoke last weekend.
The Frenchman is aware, however, that progress needs to be made.
“I think we have fantastic potential to attack with quality,” he said. “This is very interesting for the future. After that, we can correct some details in defensive situations or start with players.”
Substance is more important than style, and he seems ready to unleash his side’s forwards at the earliest possible moment by playing in a direct manner that would not have pleased his previous employers.
“When we can find our striker in the final third, we saw we can be dangerous all the time,” he said, reflecting upon the Stoke fixture. “It was a good game and encouraging for the future, but of course we have different things to work on.”
With the likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Demerai Gray capable of opening up any defence given the right service, a step back towards Ranieri’s tactics seems to be the obvious solution. Indeed, while their display in Stoke was far from perfect, most notably defensively, there was a great deal more life about the team than there had been in recent weeks under Craig Shakespeare.
Leicester simply cannot resort to the blueprint they used to guide themselves to glory two years ago, though. The game moves on quickly and they must evolve to offer new ideas, which is where Puel will be tested.
Certainly, there are tools to suggest that there are players in the squad who can be manipulated to offer something different.
Harry Maguire in the heart of the defence, for example, offers ball-playing capabilities that simply were not present in the team that won the league, yet equally his willingness to pass his way out of trouble must be matched by others around him if it is to prove effective.
Puel is not, however, someone who will shy away from the arduous work of marrying the old Leicester style to his fresh ideas. The Foxes have already taken steps forward under his guidance and they can look forward to a comfortable campaign ahead.
It may not be thrilling, but it will be effective – just like their manager.