Sousa faces huge challenge at Leicester
An immaculately presented Portuguese coach stands on the edge of his technical area, aware that the eleven players in front of him carry his destiny in their actions. The season is nearly at an end and his players have so far kept the opposition at bay, as they have so many times over the last nine months.
All they need is a goal to tip the balance in their favour and justify their coach’s pragmatic approach. But whereas Jose Mourinho had, in Diego Milito, the most in-form striker in world football to call upon, Paulo Sousa had Lee Trundle.
So there the comparisons end between the two Portuguese coaches. Swansea City’s season ended on a low note with their frustratingly familiar inability to score in a goalless draw at home to Doncaster Rovers. Blackpool were off the hook and, soon enough, into the Premiership.
Moving on to the Midlands
The Championship semi-final first leg played at the Walkers Stadium featured a Welsh side and was watched by a Portuguese coach but it was Cardiff City who were the visitors and Sousa was instead seated in the director’s box as a guest of chairman Milan Mandaric. A more astute observer would have speculated about Nigel Pearson’s future well before his apparently surprise exit weeks later.
Sousa it is then. The new man to be ensnared in Mandaric’s revolving door has quite a few conundrums to solve in the countdown to the big kickoff. First of all, Sousa must ensure that the club’s fine young players do not begin to pine for a reunion with their mentor at Hull.
Before Pearson’s arrival in the East Midlands, Andy King was merely a promising Academy graduate at a club in apparent turmoil. Pearson gave King the regular starting place his talent richly deserved despite inexperience and the boss was rewarded for his faith with consistently good performances and a magnificent goal tally over two superb seasons.
And before Pearson took the Leicester job, Jack Hobbs was just another young Englishman stuck with the unenviable task of breaking into a top four Premiership club that was becoming increasingly reliant on foreign imports. Hobbs attributes his own willingness to leave Liverpool to the incoming transfer of Slovakian international Martin Skrtel.
When Skrtel signed, it signalled curtains for Hobbs at Anfield and, two years later, the former Lincoln City man has answered his rejection by becoming the best young English centre-back outside the top flight.
Keeping the likes of King and Hobbs is only part of Sousa’s new remit. He must also deal with the mysterious controversy surrounding a training ground altercation ahead of that play-off semi-final first leg he attended. In the delayed fallout from the incident involving defender Wayne Brown, a cool head will be needed to retain standards of professionalism.
Another player who faces an uncertain future is French forward Yann Kermorgant, whose “panenka” attempt went so horribly wrong at the worst possible time. The disparate but damaging actions of Brown and Kermorgant, so far out of keeping with Pearson’s resolve to run the club away from the glare of the media, surely played a part in his exit.
The biggest reason for Pearson’s departure, though, arguably represents Sousa’s biggest headache. Executive manoeuvres sent DJ Campbell on loan to Blackpool, rather than Derby as Pearson was expecting.
Regardless of Mandaric’s widely-reported friendship with his new manager, Sousa’s spell at Queen’s Park Rangers ended amid rumours of board interference in team affairs and there have also been strained relations with his previous chairman Huw Jenkins at Swansea over the transfer budget at the Liberty Stadium.
Pearson appears to have been keener on gambling that he can utilise the parachute payments that Hull will receive despite the club’s financial state, rather than continuing to operate within Mandaric’s confines. Sousa will not have millions to spend. In fact, he may not have anything at all to spend in terms of transfer fees.
The tactics board
The most interesting task faced by Sousa will be to persuade Leicester fans that their hard-earned cash is worth parting with to see his brand of pragmatic football. An immensely successful globe-trotting midfielder as a player, Sousa has so far shown little commitment to attack since his move into management. Swansea fans grew frustrated with his defensively-minded football, which brought little entertainment value despite an impressive ability to keep possession.
While Pearson was also accused of defensive tactics at various stages last season, there was a clash of styles when his Leicester team met Sousa’s Swansea. In each of the three meetings between the two clubs, the Welsh side kept the ball for long periods but looked rattled when Leicester upped the tempo.
Swansea took the lead in all three games but lost both played at the Walkers Stadium, including an FA Cup third-round tie in January. Later that month, they held onto their lead in the league game at the Liberty Stadium with an out-of-sorts Leicester side unable to raise their game for a third time.
Leicester unquestionably have the players to adopt Sousa’s possession football with a stricter demand on keeping clean sheets. In the second half of last season, Pearson changed his tactics to play three men in midfield with a lone striker and two advanced wide men in the same vein as Swansea but Leicester looked more dangerous going forward and this difference secured their top six place while the Welshmen missed out.
The main beneficiary of Sousa’s move to the Walkers Stadium may be Paul Gallagher. The former Blackburn attacker initially struggled to find his role within the Leicester setup following his move from Ewood Park, but a hat-trick at home to Scunthorpe United kickstarted his season and he was one of City’s key performers in their play-off push. Gallagher’s ability to retain possession and eye for a clever attack-minded pass could be crucial to the success of the Sousa model.
Nigel Pearson is a hard act to follow, but there is no interval in which Paulo Sousa can prepare for life in the Leicester City hotseat. Defeat in the play-offs often leads to a difficult period of adjustment at the start of the following season. For Sousa, the challenges are many and varied but, most dauntingly of all, the brief Pearson era has seen Leicester fans grow accustomed to the feeling of victory.
Like his compatriot Mourinho, Sousa also has two European Cups to his name but they were both won as a player. His managerial record is far more modest and this season could be sink or swim for the pragmatic Portuguese.