How quickly it can all change. On December 22, just as Claude Puel prepared to take Leicester City to Stamford Bridge for a daunting encounter with Chelsea, the Daily Mail published a report claiming that the Frenchman was set to lose his job.
The report detailed how Puel’s relationship with his players and coaching staff had reached a nadir.
It all felt a bit familiar.
Just like at Southampton, the softly-spoken 57-year-old has forever seemed to be fighting a losing battle at Leicester, forever circling the drain, just a couple of results away from getting the boot.
Admittedly, at the time of the report’s release, matters at the King Power appeared bleak. The Foxes had just lost back-to-back league games before losing to Manchester City on penalties in the Carabao Cup.
But reports of Puel’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. After following up a shock win at Stamford Bridge with another three points against City, exacting revenge for their cup exit, some reporters were left red-faced at Puel’s stunning one-two punch.
Of course, in typical Puel style, Leicester then lost at home to Cardiff (he’s never won three Premier League matches in a row). However, following another impressive win on the road, this time at Everton on New Year’s Day, Puel’s position has been stabilised – for now.
And that is in no small part thanks to Ricardo Pereira, the summer signing who is routinely justifying his £25million price-tag.
The Portuguese was signed as a full-back but has provided as much excitement and inspiration in the final third as anyone in recent weeks.
After an impressive display at Chelsea, the 25-year-old stunned City with a spectacular late winner on Boxing Day, condemning Pep Guardiola’s side to a second straight defeat.
Pereira’s thumping effort into the top corner is sure to pop up on highlights reels but it was thoroughly deserved after another scintillating display. So prominent was the former Porto man’s vibrancy and invention in the final third that Puel decided to move him further up the pitch, deploying Pereira on the left wing of his 4-3-3 for the trip to Everton.
More obvious than inspired, it still produced the desired result, with Pereira sparkling on Merseyside, playing the killer pass that released Jamie Vardy for the winner. But the makeshift winger’s influence was undeniable throughout the 90 minutes at Goodison. Completing seven dribbles, he terrorised Jonjoe Kenny all afternoon on his way to another man of the match award.
As long as Pereira continues his sizzling form, Puel has a fighting chance of keeping his job at Leicester.
Pereira has settled well in England. Having played under Puel at Nice, he was greeted by a familiar face after joining but £25million is a price big enough to weigh heavily on the mind.
Pereira has been seemingly unnerved, though, finding a consistency that makes him a strong early shout for Leicester’s player of the year.
His stats are mightily impressive, too. While his flying dribbles and powerful shots promoted him to Match of the Day analysis level, he is the league’s most prolific tackler – and by some distance.
With 79 tackles landed (4.45 per 90), he is seven ahead of Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye and Crystal Palace‘s Aaron Wan-Bissaka (another adventurous full-back to come under the MOTD spotlight during the festive period after his display against City).
Next on the list is Wilfred Ndidi, who has managed 68. That Pereira has completed 11 more tackles than Leicester’s ball-winner-in-chief (in 266 fewer minutes too) is a testament to the Portuguese’s mastery of the art. Much to Puel’s delight, he is as effective at breaking up play as he is driving it forward.
The outlay on Pereira was significant but his performances have more than validated his transfer value. It has come as a relief for Leicester, too, who have endured mixed fortunes in recent times, long removed from the days of signing Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté for less than £10million combined.
Of course, the unwanted but inevitable caveat to Pereira’s emergence will be talk of an eventual departure to a top-six side, a progression of the modern game Foxes fans have felt acutely with the departures of Kanté and Mahrez to Chelsea and City respectively in recent summers.
For now, though, they can enjoy Pereira’s rise to prominence. Leicester are currently seventh in the table and one would assume it can’t get any higher for them. If they are to secure a top-seven finish ahead of Watford, Wolves et al and save Puel though, Pereira will be a major figure during the second half of the season.