Why did Sven-Goran Eriksson fail at Leicester City?
A big-name manager. Wealthy, ambitious foreign owners. The lower half of the table. It sounds like an explosive combination with an inevitable end result, yet Leicester City’s decision to remove Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager at the King Power Stadium this evening was met with shock from most quarters.
It is only eight days since a seven-game unbeaten run ended and Leicester last won less than a week ago. Eriksson enjoyed popularity with players and fans alike. Nevertheless, the Raksriaksorns lifted their axe high into the air to bring Eriksson’s time with the club to its conclusion after 13 months. Why? And is it the right decision?
In order to examine these two questions, we must travel back to the summer of 2010, weeks before the arrival of the Thai consortium that now owns the club and months before Eriksson’s tenure began. Specifically, we must look at the play-off semi-final second leg defeat to Cardiff City. Much has changed since that evening – only three of the fourteen players who took to the field in a Leicester shirt still play for the same manager, doing so instead in the colours of Hull City – and it provides a sharp contrast with the current situation.
Revisiting this game may seem unnecessarily tangential but the teamsheet is telling. This was a team which had grown together, with six of the starting eleven having played regularly in the previous League One title-winning campaign. The enduring image from that night, if not Martyn Waghorn sobbing on the turf, was the sight of veteran Steve Howard and young centre-back Jack Hobbs leaving the field with their arms around each other’s shoulders. These players certainly had their limitations but they were essentially capable Championship performers, something which Hobbs proved during a superb first season in the second tier with Leicester and now has the opportunity to re-affirm with Hull.
When the brief Paulo Sousa era came to an inglorious end, Eriksson was drafted in to right the wrongs of the Portuguese’s neglect. The new man rightly recognised that fitness was the most pressing issue and Leicester gradually got up to speed, climbing the table in the process until a particularly fine run in the New Year gave the impression that promotion was a probability.
Eriksson also failed to see potential in younger players like Hobbs, Waghorn, Matty Fryatt and Michael Morrison. All have been discarded during his reign. Whether he was right or wrong in his appraisal of these players, their places were initially filled by loan players and then by a raft of permanent signings this summer. Much of the initial focus on Eriksson’s departure was trained on the need for the new recruits to gel but the fact that such upheaval was necessary in the first place was a decision taken by Eriksson when he dismantled the team Pearson built and Sousa largely kept faith with. Much was made of Leicester’s heavy summer spending but they had almost an entire team to build from scratch after seven loan players left.
This season’s record demonstrates Leicester’s inconsistency all too clearly: Five wins, four draws, four defeats. In their last six games, the same record reads: two wins, two draws, two defeats. They are unbeaten against the top half of the division but have won only two of their games against teams beneath them. They are one of only two teams to beat league leaders Southampton. They are the only team to be defeated by bottom club Bristol City.
It wasn’t always like this under Eriksson. Last season, it was Leicester’s inability to beat top six sides, particularly away from home, that ultimately accounted for their play-off ambitions. This kind of dramatic change has taken place in so many areas of the club, not least from a tactical perspective.
Eriksson quickly established a 4-3-3 formation upon his arrival at Leicester and maintained this approach for the vast majority of last season, encouraging possession football and quick, close passing. This season, that has been ditched in favour of a diamond 4-4-2 that packs the midfield. Some of the new players have been impressive – both Kasper Schmeichel and David Nugent are already extremely popular with fans – but others have struggled to live up to their lofty billing – Republic of Ireland centre-back Sean St Ledger looks anything but international class.
Summer investiture was spread throughout the squad with one exception – no wingers were signed, whereas new central midfielders arrived at regular intervals. Neil Danns, Gelson Fernandes and Michael Johnson joined Yuki Abe, Richie Wellens and Andy King, making for a crowded centre circle and sparse concentration out wide. Eriksson’s diamond midfield was employed to great effect for long periods but it also served to congest many games. If the opposition played their cards right, Leicester’s diamond worked against them. It looked impressive during the visit of Derby but stifling in the defeat at Birmingham.
Both of these games were televised and plenty of neutral observers were baffled by the contrasting displays. In truth, it was this lack of consistency which has ultimately cost Eriksson his job at a club which now expects success. When Leicester chairman Aiyawatt Raksriaksorn is interviewed, it often doesn’t matter what the question is. He simply repeats the same mantra: “We want to go to the Premier League”. The new man at Leicester City may have a wealth of resources to call upon. He may have a healthy transfer budget to put to use in January. He must also have broad shoulders to cope with the most high-pressure job outside of the division his new club craves to reach.