F365’s early loser: Claude Puel slowly taking Leicester nowhere

Ian Watson

‘Out of darkness cometh light’: the motto of Wolverhampton, available for purchase from the Molineux club shop in the form of a light-up canvas print. Leicester City manager Claude Puel must feel as though the shade is closing in on him, though, after his side fell to a dramatic 4-3 defeat against Wolves in Saturday’s early Premier League kick-off.

There is a growing discontent with the Frenchman among Leicester fans, and those feelings would have been crystallised inside 12 minutes here, as Ryan Bennett rose to authoritatively thump home a header from a Joao Moutinho corner to put Nuno Espirito Santo’s men 2-0 up.

Diogo Jota had beaten Danny Simpson to a Moutinho cross eight minutes earlier as Wolves, faster to every dropping ball, capitalised on Leicester’s inability to properly clear their lines from a corner. Were it not for a stunning Kasper Schmeichel save to deny Ruben Neves from 25 yards, Leicester would have found themselves behind even earlier.

After 13 minutes, Puel was taunted by the home support: “You’re getting sacked in the morning,” sang the Sir Jack Hayward stand in unison. Two minutes later, as Harvey Barnes, anticipating an overlap from Ben Chilwell that wasn’t forthcoming, passed the ball out of play, Puel turned his back to the pitch, arms folded, and walked forlornly back to the dugout, cutting the figure of a man out of ideas and belief.

Demarai Gray, deployed centrally as a No.10, always looked Leicester ‘s biggest threat, and it was the Birmingham-born 22-year-old who got Foxes back in the game, finishing crisply after a rapid breakaway just 90 seconds into the second half. It wasn’t long before Barnes, already unpopular inside Molineux having spent the first half of the season on loan down the road at West Brom, fired Leicester level, his shot deflecting in off Wolves captain Conor Coady.

But the fight in Puel’s charges soon dissipated, as Ruben Neves wrestled control of midfield. The Portuguese playmaker’s 40-yard pass found Jota – exploiting the fact Wes Morgan, at this stage of his career, has the turning circle of a cross-Channel ferry – to fire Wolves back in front in the 64th minute. And Jota completed his hat-trick in stoppage time via the same route, racing free of Morgan to convert Raul Jimenez’s centre.

Morgan seemed to have rescued a point for Leicester, perhaps earning his manager a week’s grace from questions about his continued employment in the process, heading in James Maddison’s corner with just three minutes to play. For Morgan personally, the goal was merely a lick of paint on a crumbling wall; the captain of Leicester’s miraculous 2015/16 title triumph has become a symbol of their decline.

Leicester enjoyed a greater share of possession and mustered more shots than their hosts. But there was a striking lack of penetration and invention from the away side, traits abundant in the Wolves counter-attacks for which Puel’s creaking backline – three of the back four which finished the game were over 30 – were ill-equipped to cope.

Leicester went into the game in better form than Wolves, having won three of their last five league games – as opposed to the home side’s one win from five – and they sat a thoroughly respectable eighth place, with only Watford ahead of them in the race to be crowned the Premier League’s “best of the rest” behind the untouchable top six.

But the root of the consternation at the King Power of late is more a matter of inconsistency and a dull playing style; this seven-goal thriller at Molineux may go some way towards assuaging the latter complaints, but not the former. This is a side who beat Manchester City and Chelsea just last month, but have since lost to Cardiff, Southampton and now Wolves – not to mention the embarrassment of being dumped out of the FA Cup by League Two’s Newport County.

Leicester fans aren’t looking for a repeat of that once-in-a-lifetime title win, and the tragic death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha earlier this season has put matters on the pitch into stark perspective; this isn’t a case of supporters wrangling over results.

But Leicester lack direction and an identity; it’s about moving forward, if not upward, something Puel doesn’t look like delivering.

Ryan Baldi at Molineux