“Upon meeting Claude, his attention to detail, knowledge of our squad, understanding of our potential and his vision to help us realise it were extremely impressive,” Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha said on Tuesday. “He quickly emerged as the outstanding candidate.”
It was a slightly optimistic assessment of Leicester City’s managerial search, one that included approaching Carlo Ancelotti, Sam Allardyce and Thomas Tuchel before being rejected by each in turn. In fact, Puel was forced to spend almost his entire unveiling defending his style of play and his suitability for his new job.
Those critics might feel a little less uneasy now. Leicester were rampant during the first half, creating four chances in the first ten minutes and barely looking back. Jamie Vardy scored the first goal of Puel’s reign, just as he did under Claudio Ranieri and Craig Shakespeare, but the real magic came from the three attacking midfielders behind him. Even if the “oles” after 25 minutes were chanted with tongues in cheeks, they have been missing for too long. If this is boring football, sign us all up for season tickets.
It was a world away from the sluggish attacking moves of Puel’s latter days at Southampton, a reflection of his successful time at Lyon when dismal football eventually overshadowed any progress on the field. He reached the Champions League semi-finals at the Stade de Gerland and the League Cup final (and eighth place in the Premier League) at St Mary’s, but neither were enough to quench the thirst for goals that every football supporters possesses, secretly or otherwise.
Yet as Puel pointed out before his first game in charge, he has very different tools to work with at Leicester. Southampton ranked seventh in the Premier League for chances created last season, so that was hardly the problem; they ranked 14th for shot accuracy and 20th for shot conversion. Puel’s argument that Jamie Vardy is a very different striker to Shane Long and Manolo Gabbiadini stood up to Sunday scrutiny.
Puel’s team selection was also refreshingly bold. Out went Marc Albrighton and Shinji Okazaki, surely the trusted deputies of a safety-first manager. In came Demarai Gray, for his second league start since April, and Ben Chilwell as a left winger. The former was the game’s best player, instrumental in the first goal and credited with the second despite it requiring Jonjoe Kenny to slice into his own goal.
That left Riyad Mahrez to operate as a roaming, swashbuckling No. 10. Puel spoke in midweek of “seducing” Mahrez into wanting to stay at Leicester, and that might include letting him choose his position. If Mahrez’s move from the wing to (literal) centre stage is a coincidence, it is a happy one. The Algerian left poor Tom Davies with twisted blood. Ranieri did pretty well out of kowtowing to key players.
Sadly we must talk of David Unsworth and Everton too. Unsworth has used his week in the spotlight as a walking, talking Curriculum Vitae, but opted for the controversial strategy of operating almost exclusively in cliches. It would now seem as if there is more than “bleeding blue” and “giving 150%” to being a successful Everton manager. If Unsworth’s plan was to unite the club, it fell short – away supporters were almost silent after the second goal.
Everton did improve after half-time, enough to cause the type of occasional groan from home supporters that has been far too familiar in these parts this season. But more instructive is that Unsworth picked a defence of three 30-somethings and then used a ludicrously high line and recalled Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon as wingers to start together for the second time in the league since April 2016. Both were removed at the break.
As comfortable start as Puel could wish for, then. Rather than focus on his Southampton season, Leicester City’s new manager may plead a lesson from slightly less recent history. In 2002, he was appointed manager at Lille and proceeded to bloody the noses of clubs with far bigger budgets and reputations for a period of six years.
That’s a pastime Leicester turned into art form in 2015/16. Puel may not be the sexy name the Leicester’s owners aimed for and supporters dreamt of, but there is still plenty to appreciate in this marriage of convenience.