How will David Nugent fit into Sven-Goran Eriksson's Leicester City?
David Nugent has signed for Leicester City on a free transfer, penning a three-year deal after the expiry of his contract with Portsmouth. But where will he fit into Sven-Goran Eriksson’s masterplan and how effective will he be at his new club?
From 30th January 2010 onwards, Leicester have consistently fielded a 4-3-3 formation with only sporadic variations. This setup began with a league clash against Newcastle United under Nigel Pearson, who had previously relied heavily on a more traditional 4-4-2. It continued, after a dismal diamond midfield experiment, under the brief reign of Paulo Sousa, who had favoured 4-3-3 when manager of Swansea City. It even endured when Sven-Goran Eriksson succeeded the Portuguese late last year. The question now is whether Eriksson, historically a strong advocate of 4-4-2, will revert to what has brought him success in the past.
The central midfield area was Leicester’s weak spot for the majority of the past decade, a trend best summarised by relegation from the second tier in 2008 despite boasting the second best defensive record in the division. That year, they conceded at a rate of less than a goal per game. Contrast with 2011’s relegated trio, none of whom shipped fewer than 79 goals. For years after the departure of Muzzy Izzet, nobody controlled the centre of the park for Leicester. Under Pearson, this changed and the switch to 4-3-3 strengthened the midfield even further – Andy King has netted double figures from midfield in each of his three full seasons in the first team and Richie Wellens is the club’s reigning Player of the Year.
With the capture of Neil Danns from Crystal Palace on a free transfer – an excellent addition to complement King, Wellens, Yuki Abe and Matt Oakley – Eriksson has seemingly declared his intention to continue with a formation which has served Leicester well. Lee Peltier is a fine replacement for last season’s loanee Kyle Naughton and will continue to roam from the right-back position to provide width, while confirmation of the arrival of South African international left-back Tsepo Masilela also seems imminent – another attack-minded defender continuing in the same vein as Greg Cunningham and Patrick van Aanholt.
Further evidence has been provided with the signing of Nugent. The best moments of the former England man’s past year with Portsmouth were characterised by surging runs infield from wide positions. This direct running is something which Leicester often lacked, with Lloyd Dyer used sparingly by an unimpressed Eriksson and Darius Vassell failing to produce a consistent level of excellence. Their key attackers – King, Yakubu and Paul Gallagher – all rely on technical ability rather than pace, but Eriksson was insistent that the side needed more pace. With Gallagher, stationed as one of the team’s wide attackers, almost certain to retain his place in the Swede’s first-choice lineup after arguably the best season of his career to date, pace was a pre-requisite for any incoming transfers to boost Leicester’s options in wide areas. Nugent provides that in abundance.
What Nugent also supplies is a touch of arrogance, something Leicester fans are all too aware of. It was his dismissive joviality which made Pompey’s 6-1 humiliation of then fellow strugglers City at Fratton Park last September all the more enraging. It made another appearance when Portsmouth won March’s return fixture by a single goal to mark one of only two defeats in Eriksson’s 17 home league games as City manager last season. When a set piece resulted in chaos in the hosts’ penalty area, Nugent calmly slotted home from the edge of the box and celebrated in front of the Leicester fans by pointing to the name on the back of his shirt. Now it is a name he hopes they will sing on a regular basis.
It isn’t all sweetness and light, of course. Some Portsmouth fans began to tire of Nugent’s inconsistency in front of goal and the impression is that many easy opportunities went begging. He also has a point to prove with regard to his failed England career. That may seem a long way away at the moment, but legacy is always important and no footballer should ever willingly accept the label of a “good Championship player” without a burning desire to prove themselves at the highest level. For Nugent, that means the second half of his twenties has to involve plenty of Premier League football.
If, and it is a big if, we assume Eriksson will persist with 4-3-3 and that Gallagher and Nugent will be first choice in the wide positions, it will be interesting to see which sides they take up. Both are right-footed but both were also more effective last season playing on the left flank and cutting in. While Nugent does this in a direct fashion, committing defenders and taking them on, Gallagher is far more keen to turn a right-back onto his weaker foot and drift off the touchline to link up with the likes of Wellens and King or deliver the ball into the area.
Eriksson briefly flirted with the idea of a diamond midfield and two centre-forwards during a spell of poor form, but this was quickly shelved when results did not improve. Given Norwich City’s success with this approach last season and the inviting thought of including Wellens, Abe and Danns in the same team, the diamond may still be an option and Nugent would certainly end up as a central striker if this transpired. However, it would be difficult to fit both King and Gallagher into this setup. With promotion the aim and a squad rather than a team being built, perhaps rotation is inevitable and the use of 4-3-3 is not set in stone.
Away from formations, Nugent’s effectiveness for Leicester may also rely on the signing of a poacher to get on the end of his low crosses into the box. Dave Kitson played this role for Portsmouth, with often limited effect. Leicester continue to pursue Bristol City’s Nicky Maynard, while talk also persists of Andy Johnson receiving a big-money offer to swap Fulham for the Championship. It would be understandable to consider a player of this quality to be the final piece in the jigsaw from an attacking perspective, with promising youngster Jeffrey Schlupp highly rated by Eriksson following a successful loan spell with Brentford at the back end of last season and Martyn Waghorn also keen to make an impression after a disappointing first year as a permanent member of the City squad.
In terms of first-choice players, it could be argued that Leicester are now a left-back (perhaps Masilela) and a centre-forward away from a side that could expect to chase automatic promotion, while another centre-back will also arrive. If, as Eriksson desires, this is Matt Mills from Reading for a fee in the region of £4million, then people will really sit up and take notice.
The speculation will continue, but the pieces are slowly falling into place for Leicester City. Where David Nugent fits into it all is just one part of the puzzle for a professor to solve. Over to you, Sven.