Are Leicester City about to do a Southampton?
The curtain fell on yet another entertaining Premier League campaign yesterday. We now go into a summer where at least four of the surviving seventeen clubs look set for managerial changes. It is usual for there to be comings and goings pre-season, but this could be the second summer in succession in which Claude Puel receives an unwarranted P45.
Rumours are rife that Leicester are about to do away with the Frenchman as the owners seek a change. However, given the turbulence and unpredictability of the Premier League is this a dodgy gamble or a wise move by Leicester? History tells us it’s the former.
Claude Puel took over with the club eighteenth in the Premier League with just six points to their name by the middle of October. Since then he has guided them to ten wins from his twenty-nine games in the league and moved them up to ninth in the table where they ultimately finished. This was the Frenchman’s second year in the English game, after his year at Southampton achieved a similar 8th place finish with the bonus of a League Cup Final place.
At fifty-six he has had a solid career in the game, managing similar sized clubs to similar stability in the French League. He is not a name synonymous with trophies and glory but then to be fair, neither are Leicester and Southampton. If The Foxes do sack him as widely speculated, the obvious questions have to be, who do they want to replace him? And what will be his objectives?
Puel was dismissed in June 2017 after a reasonable season fizzled out at St Mary’s. Southampton went on to make a left of field appointment in former Liverpool defender Mauricio Pellegrino. The club has made some solid appointments since their return to the Premier League. Therefore, many could be forgiven to assume that they had appointment a seasoned continental coach who could continue the clubs good work on the pitch.
However, a closer look at Pellegrino’s record does leave a bit of head scratching to say to the least as to how he had landed the job. Just eighteen months as a manager in Europe, had seen him sacked by his former club Valencia in 2012, before returning last season and guiding Deportivo Alaves to mid-table and a cup final. With such a sparse CV, this appointment suggests muddled thinking at Southampton. The club had perhaps reached its limits and were unsure of where or with whom the next step was. Whichever way you look at it, the decision to sack Puel looks the poorer when you consider his replacement. Would consolidation and more clear objectives helped the Frenchman keep his job?
It’s never fair to pin the blame on a club’s reversal solely on one man, but Southampton had gone from a solid top ten side, to relegation favourites in less than twelve months. The Argentine was eventually sacked after just five league wins all season, with many pointing the finger squarely at him for a catalogue of blunt performances. Mark Hughes was parachuted in and just about kept them up with thirty-six points, hardly worth celebrating.
The Southampton experience should be at least considered by The Fox’s board before any decisions are made final. There are no absolutes in football and with Leicester’s growing riches, they may be able to appoint well and avoid any pain, but if they do a botched recruitment job, could Pulis or Allardyce be seen at King Power early next spring?
If Puel is sacked, then it will be the latest in a long line of decisions where a club’s ambitions have become obscured by panic or a handful of poor results. We all know the story of 2016, Leicester’s title win is genuinely one of the most enjoying football stories in modern times, but it is was always going to be a one off. The big six teams would always recover and elbow Leicester out of the way.
Since then it’s been hard to ascertain what the club wants. But it’s hard to criticize their current manager if you look at this season in the context of the Fox’s recent years, Puel has delivered a top ten finish in the top flight for only the second time since the year 2000. He’s had one window, and inherited another three managers worth of players. Where realistically did the owners expect him to finish?
Burnley in seventh were catchable and perhaps benefited from the managerial chaos at Everton and Leicester, but the fact remains, it is ambiguous and simple guess work to try and figure out what some of these directors expect from their teams. Southampton had finished on par under Puel, they are never going to push for a top six spot in normal seasons, and they almost won a major trophy for just the second time in their history with the Frenchman before sacking him. Again the questions, what did they want? Where do they expect to be? Surely it wouldn’t hurt Leicester’s future to give him a fair run, another transfer window and a run of games? If it tail off again, then at least the club will have given him a fair chance to make a mark.
Player power hidden in the results business
It is fair to say that some of Leicester’s results this season have been woeful. A thumping at Palace and yesterday embarrassing 5-4 defeat at Spurs are just two examples of capitulation that will leave the paying fans angry and demanding an inquest. It is also the second season where a club managed by Claude Puel has burnt out and faded with a decent chunk of games remaining. Perhaps the owners have looked at this and decided they simply want more wins, better results and improved football.
But is it fair to ask for more from the players? After all, this is a team with a core of title winners in its ranks. They have seasoned internationals and expensively signed players. Puel has signed just one first team player in Fousseni Diabate and hardly had any time to mould a squad in his true image. Yes it is his job to get the best from his players, but as previously stated he’s guided them to ninth in just twenty-nine league games.
These are gifted players who have a history of downing tools; even their title winning manager was not insulated by a player revolt which bizarrely saw his side in the last sixteen of the Champions League whilst being pulled in to the relegation zone. Where the players picking and choosing their games? If they were then, then it’s not unfair to suggest they may be doing it now. The fans deserve better and players should stop hiding at key moments in a season. The book doesn’t always stop with a manger.
No end in sight
As the money has flowed into the Premier League, so too has the fear or missing out on it. Perhaps this undermines the argument that clubs like Leicester and Southampton lack a clear plan. The objective becomes clearer in fact after a run of bad results leaves a club facing relegation. The plan is to survive at any cost. Short-termism is the order of the day, and sackings before a manager has had any real chance to make a lasting impact are now the norm. The LMA reports that from 2006-7 to 16-17 there were on average; eight managerial changes in the Premier League per season, with highs of twelve in two of the past four seasons. The arithmetic looks merciless for Claude Puel and his none-top six colleagues. Foxes fans will be hoping history doesn’t repeat itself as they look ominously over their shoulders.