Leicester adapting to Sousa style
Leicester City players have not had it easy over the past couple of years. No pain, no gain – and Leicester certainly gained. They reaped the rewards of the hard work former manager Nigel Pearson and his coaching staff demanded of them, winning the League One title in 2009 before reaching the Championship’s top six last season.
A significant part of Leicester’s recent success can be attributed to an intensive focus on sports science. The club possessed one of the fittest squads to grace each of the two divisions in which they participated, while also suffering fewer injuries than the majority of their rivals.
When, in 2008, Leicester were relegated out of the top two divisions for the first time in their history, things had to change off the pitch as well as on it. Chairman Milan Mandaric and Lee Hoos, his Chief Executive, knew that financial cutbacks were necessary. Some of the club’s activities were viewed as less important than others and so sacrifices were made in areas such as the media department.
The new testament
These sacrifices meant that the club could plough funds into its sports science approach. Players such as Jack Hobbs, Andy King and Richie Wellens were virtual everpresents last season. They will hope to repeat that form and fortune for the forthcoming campaign, but the focus has shifted slightly as Leicester aim to go one better.
The man overseeing pre-season preparations is no longer wearing the club training top and tracksuit bottoms that Pearson made his uniform. For Leicester’s friendly with Oxford United at the Kassam Stadium, their players were directed instead by a man wearing a navy jacket, light blue shirt with jeans and a pair of brown loafers.
Paulo Sousa has replaced Pearson in charge at Leicester and his elegant attire reflects the more attractive playing style he requests from his new personnel.
There has been plenty of PR bluster from the club regarding Sousa’s more visually appealing approach to tactics, channelled through their official website and the local media, in an attempt to soften the blow of the popular Pearson’s departure. The thing is… it’s true.
Supporters of Swansea City, Sousa’s last club, were quick to suggest that Leicester fans ought to bring a book along to the Walkers Stadium for games under their new manager. There were remarkably few goals from Sousa’s Swansea, despite their lofty league placing, and much of the Welsh side’s possession play veered away from the attractive tiki-taka of Barcelona and Spain into the realms of tedium. Sousa favoured a 4-3-3 which verged on 4-5-1, employing a lone striker and encouraging his players to keep the ball on the deck as often as possible.
Under Pearson, meanwhile, Leicester played a routine 4-4-2 formation until halfway through last season when they made a successful transition to 4-3-3. A similar style was expected under the new boss. Thus far in pre-season, however, Leicester have adopted a diamond 4-4-2 formation in Sousa’s brave new world. On the evidence of early showings, the books may not be necessary after all.
Matty Fryatt and Steve Howard have resumed their strike partnership, having formed an understanding that contributed nearly 50 goals in the 2008/09 campaign. On the wings, swapping regularly, the lightning-quick Lloyd Dyer and DJ Campbell both provide an attacking outlook. Their movement off the ball and ability to outpace virtually any opponent can damage any Championship team.
Campbell’s future is still very much in the balance, with Blackpool remaining quietly keen to retrieve the man that helped fire them to the Premiership. For now, his record of four goals in four pre-season games for Leicester, including an impressive free kick at the Kassam Stadium, bodes well if he does stay.
In the middle
King and Wellens will pick up where they left off in central midfield, but this time seemingly without the extra insurance provided last season, initially by captain Matt Oakley and subsequently by Liverpool loanee Jay Spearing. Welsh international King has reached double figures in each of his first two full seasons at first-team level and takes positions higher up the pitch, looking to link smartly with the four forwards.
Wellens is a more tenacious player, but one with an eye for a killer pass. His new role anchoring the Leicester midfield has already been described as a “quarterback” position. In American Football terms, however, the former Doncaster man would be more accurately compared to a running-back for the frequent ten-yard gains he makes through bustling bursts over the halfway line.
Neither are particularly defensively-minded and Sousa can expect to see his new team caught on the counter-attack on many occasions this season if he persists with the diamond as his preferred formation. Surely, though, there is no need for both Howard and Fryatt to lead the line. An extra body in midfield would be far more beneficial, in place of the second striker.
Spearing played the role to perfection at the end of last season, breaking up play and providing the simple pass to a more creative colleague. When possession was lost, the diminutive midfielder tore into tackles and hustled the opposition off the ball in equal measure.
Either way, the counter-attack was not a threat. But it looks to be a weapon that most will be able to deploy against Sousa’s Leicester in their current setup, which they have utilised for each of the first four friendlies this summer.
At the back
There is very little real pace in the Leicester backline. Regular defenders Jack Hobbs, Michael Morrison and Bruno Berner are far more comfortable dealing with aerial bombardment than with playing a high line that looks vulnerable to a simple lofted through-ball.
At the moment, midfielder Nicky Adams is being auditioned as a right-back but this is a position that will need to be filled with a new signing. Alternatively, Morrison could switch from the middle if a suitable central defender can be found.
Chris Weale is a fine goalkeeper at Championship level and, although he often suffers from poor communication, Leicester would struggle to find a financially viable replacement of similar quality so West Ham’s rumoured interest is unwanted.
Weale and his back four are not immune to Sousa’s desire to see attractive football. Previously, the former Bristol City keeper kicked at every opportunity but now he bowls the ball out to one of his defenders or the deep-lying midfielder Wellens whenever he can. Likewise, each defender is encouraged to seek a pass along the ground rather than hoisting the ball in Howard’s direction as became popular under Pearson’s tutelage.
It is impossible to ignore Leicester’s lack of strength in depth. Of course, this can easily be rectified by padding out the existing squad. There is a strong spine to the team and, other than a supplementary defender, there does not look to be any urgent need to bring new players into the starting lineup. Whereas Pearson relied on loanees for this purpose, it is expected that Sousa will look to the free-agent market over the next few weeks to add bulk to his squad.
There is a wind of change sweeping through Leicester City, not least because potential investors from the Far East have met with Mandaric to discuss the possibility of becoming involved at the Walkers Stadium. On the field, though, it is from the far west of Europe that new ideas are being brought to the table. Paulo Sousa brings sophistication in the fashion stakes and will expect his players to produce stylish football to match.