Premier League

Puel presiding over winter of discontent at Leicester

 • by Mark Thompson
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If by now, Claude Puel hasn’t heard the famous line from William Shakespeare’s Richard III then someone is doing something wrong. Because now — at the King Power, just a twenty-minute walk from where the old Plantagenet king is buried — it is the winter of their discontent.

On one hand, Leicester City are eighth in the Premier League, a point behind Watford at the top of a tightly-packed midtable. They beat Chelsea and Manchester City in back-to-back games over the festive period. And Puel led them to ninth in his first season in charge, after taking the helm in October 2017.

What, you could ask, do Foxes fans have to complain about?

The defeat to Southampton at the weekend felt like the typical drawbacks with Leicester under Puel. The Foxes went 2-0 down quickly and far too easily, with individual defensive errors at the heart of both Southampton goals.

Despite Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team being reduced to ten men just before half-time, Leicester struggled to seriously threaten the visitors’ goal.

As the Saints bunkered down, just four of the Foxes’ 19 shots were on target. This wasn’t helped by the fact that 13 of them were from outside the box.

The pattern of play seemed to heavily rely on Leicester failing to find a way into the box and passing back to Harry Maguire, who would then play the ball to one of the full-backs.

It seemed a waste of James Maddison, who the team failed to create space for around the box. Though he had five shot assists from open-play, only one of these was a pass into the area.

Style over substance or substance over style?

It was coincidental that fan frustrations have risen up again after a match against Southampton, Puel’s former club. Complaints about style dogged him at St Mary’s too, and this is completely understandable.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to play with the ball, but football is a game of creating chances. Leicester have scored 26 goals in the league so far, the 11th-best tally in the division, but the underlying statistics suggest that the situation might be worse than that.

Looking at the quality of their chances, Puel’s side only have the 15th-best figure for expected goals from open play (24.85).

It gets even worse from there. Over a large enough sample, data can pick up a lot of useful information, but sometimes it doesn’t capture everything. The space and pressure (or lack of it) that a striker has around them when they shoot is one of those things that expected goals models sometimes struggle with.

Some models, called ‘post-shot’ models, look at where a shot is aimed, as well as the usual things that expected goals models look at, like the position on the pitch that the shot is taken from. The difference between the two types of models can be interesting.

With Leicester, the value of their chances drops significantly when a post-shot model is introduced. Their ‘pre-shot’ expected goals figure of 24.85 drops to a post-shot expected goals figure of 20.08, the 18th-best in the league. Only Crystal Palace have a larger drop-off.

Either the Foxes have misplaced their shooting boots somewhere in the King Power stadium, or, perhaps more likely, Puel’s style of play systematically creates lower-quality chances than normal.

A silver lining but there are still clouds

The slight silver lining for the Leicester faithful is that the same effect is happening on the defensive side. On a pre-shot model, the quality of open-play chances that the Foxes’ opponents have had are worth 27.09 expected goals, the eighth lowest.

On a post-shot model, this plummets to 20.75 expected goals, which is, astonishingly, the fourth-best figure in the entire Premier League.

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But this defensive solidity just contributes to the feeling of incessant dullness when watching the team play.

There’s also the fact that Leicester perform so poorly in front of their own fans. They’ve now played 11 games home and away, but have picked up three more points on their travels than they have at the King Power. They’ve also only scored just seven league goals in front of their own fans since the start of October.

As you might expect from this, they’ve struggled to put together any significant runs of form. Until they beat Chelsea and City and then, soon afterwards, Everton, both of their previous back-to-back league wins had been followed by back-to-back league defeats.

It’s a peculiar situation and it appears Puel and Tony Pulis might have wildly different styles but be spiritual managerial brothers. Both have a history of getting adequate results, but both by playing a brand of football that unites in boring and putting off fans.

Puel could do with bringing some spark to the King Power. If he does so, then that winter of discontent could give way to glorious summer.
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