A couple of good results were always going to suffice for Claude Puel to catch his breath again, but to win the supporters’ faith and trust back, he needed to deliver a Christmas Special.
It was too big an ask after the drab 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace. The fanbase had turned enervate and the team desolate – there was just no joy left at the King Power Stadium. Here we are, though. Leicester City have beaten Chelsea and Manchester City in the space of five days, are eighth in the Premier League and just four points off a European spot. Puel has delivered the Christmas Special, as was asked for.
All of this seems too fantastical. It almost seems like a deliberate effort on Saint Nicholas’ part to fulfil a sanguine child’s wish, but in reality, the effort is all Puel’s. It is his decision-making, his tactical astuteness and his mental strength that has helped Leicester recover in such a fashion.
Puel had a foot on the managerial merry-go-round with thousands ready to set it in motion. Drenched in adversity and tasked with somehow avoiding an inevitable apocalypse against two absolute giants of English football in Chelsea and City, he knew that if he failed here, then he was done in the East Midlands. It is a shame that the situation had to get so bad for the Frenchman to get rid of his obstinacy.
Before the trip to Stamford Bridge, we had become accustomed to the same old tactics. You could tell who was going to play a pass to whom, and what was he going to do with the ball. There was nothing on offer from the central midfield, the full-backs weren’t able to operate higher up the pitch, and there was little scope for Jamie Vardy to go in behind the defenders – which is what his strength is. What we are seeing now is the exact opposite. There is more purpose, more ebullience, more excitement and a sense of unpredictability about Leicester. Even when they sit back, you can see something coming.
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There are two players in particular who have played a major role in this change: Marc Albrighton and Hamza Choudhury. While the former hasn’t surprised anyone with his displays, the latter has. Choudhury has always been recognised as a talented young player, but no one expected him to play so well against two title contenders. It was his switch to the right side – and Albrighton’s to the left – of a midfield four as part of a formational change (from 4-5-1 to a 4-1-4-1) that turned the game on its head the other day against City.
Together, Albrighton and Choudhury pushed the visitors’ full-backs very deep into their own half, and it is because of their graft that Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira could run riot. Of course, Leicester had already got their equaliser before the change of shape, but after the change, they were able to go a level up and achieve offensive domination over Pep Guardiola’s City – something that you would not say of too many teams in Europe.
BBC Match of the Day pundit Danny Murphy was full of praise for Puel’s match-winning tactical change:
“There’s been some disgruntlement at Leicester City with the supporters and some of the players even, but Puel deserves great credit because he made a tactical change in the first half while they were level in the game that I thought changed the whole momentum of the game and gave Leicester the platform to go on and win it,” Murphy said.
“This is how they started, 4-5-1, Vardy isolated. It’s all well and good playing 4-5-1 but there was no pressure on the ball, Man City were completely dominant and they go a goal up. Then you start thinking: ‘Here we go again, another dominant Man City performance.
“Now, Leicester got back into the game and that was because Maddison came in off that left wing, where he wasn’t getting any of the ball, and played in that no.10 position that he loves so much. It’s a superb ball from Vardy and good finish from Albrighton, who was terrific all afternoon.
“Then they get the piece of paper from the manager and they change. Albrighton goes to the left, Maddison goes in at no.10 and Choudhury goes to the right. They play a 4-4-1-1 and all of a sudden, the confidence grew, they had men flying forward, Maddison started dictating play, getting on the ball in the hole with his ability to create and find those spaces.
“The two full-backs of Leicester were high up the pitch, the two central midfielders high up the pitch. How many times do we see teams against Man City do that? Not very often.
“The tactical change really worked for Leicester and all of a sudden they had confidence to get players forward. They should have gone in at half-time winning the game.
“They had runners trying to win the game, not sitting off, not playing with any fear.
“Every Leicester player deserves real credit but Puel deserves some because that tactical change was the reason they won.”
For now, Puel has done what he had to do to be able to bring Leicester back on the track, but he cannot afford to be resting on his chaise longue with the leftover Christmas vol-au-vent. If there’s one thing that the Foxes have been consistent at, then it is underwhelming in an easy game after overwhelming in a much tougher one.
They’ve just beaten two of the league’s best, and this has to be a platform for further success, not a cushion to complacently lie on.