Nigel Pearson’s team dominated the Championship last season, but will their inexperience and lack of squad depth show?
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 17th (NB: this is not necessarily Ian McCourt’s prediction, but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 1st in the Championship
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 5,000-1
When Millwall arrived at the King Power Stadium on 21 October 2011, they were three points off propping up the Championship, 10 points behind Leicester and without a win in 10. The Foxes had started the season awash with money, high-profile signings and optimism. By the end of it, they were expected to be splashing around in the May sunshine with the league trophy in hand. A Darius Henderson hat-trick and four days later, with Leicester 13th in the table, Sven-Goran Eriksson was given his given marching orders.
A new manager was needed. Names were whispered, among them Martin O’Neill. The Northern Irishman had left the club 11 years previously having secured one promotion, two League Cups and four top-10 Premier League finishes. He was also out of work after leaving Aston Villa. The bookies made him an instant favourite. Unlike Gloria Gaynor, Leicester decided they could not survive without an old flame. Only it wasn’t O’Neill they plumped for, it was Nigel Pearson. It was to be an inspired decision.
Pearson’s first jaunt with Leicester was quite the ride. He rejuvenated the club after they dropped to Division One and took them back up in style. They won 27 games, lost only four, had the best defence and attack in the league and went unbeaten for 23 games. The success, albeit not as unbridled, continued in the Championship. He brought them to a fifth-place finish and a spot in the play-offs. Once there, they were beaten on penalties by Cardiff. Afterwards Pearson went on holiday only to find out that a consortium were shown around the club behind his back. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what’s happening,” he said. He resigned and took over at Hull. There he remained until his return.
As with his first time in charge of Leicester, Pearson quickly breathed life back into the club. The end of his first full season saw them make the play-offs again but lose again, in dramatic and heartbreaking fashion to Watford. “I can’t think of a worse way to lose a match like that,” Pearson said. “It can be a very cruel game.” The end of the second season would be a lot sweeter.
Leicester were worthy title winners last season. They took top spot on Boxing Day and there they stayed. They went 26 games with only one loss. They found the net in 31 consecutive league games between November and May; the longest run of the season. They were promoted with six games to spare; they won the title with two games to spare. They broke the 100-point barrier for the first time in the club’s history and recorded the second highest Championship winning total (alongside Newcastle). Only Derby scored more goals and no side had a better record at home or away.
The success of Pearson’s side has been built on a solid spine. Kasper Schmeichel is an ever-present and consistent force in goal. His rapid reflexes and shot-stopping skills helped him keep 18 clean sheets in 46 games last season and he shunned interest from other clubs (rumoured to be Milan and Arsenal) to sign a four-year contract in the summer. In front of Schmeichel, is Wes Morgan who comes from the Steve Bruce school of centre-backs. He dominates proceedings in the air, rarely loses a tackle and has few qualms about putting a body part where others would not put their worst enemy. Together the two marshalled a miserly defence; only Brighton and Burnley conceded fewer goals.
Ahead of Morgan and Schmeichel is Danny Drinkwater. The centre midfielder was once of the Manchester United parish and is arguably the most important player in Pearson’s side. Drinkwater’s superpower is his passing. He averaged 66 passes in his 45 starts and his success rate for the season was 82.6%. In the title-clinching game against Bolton he attempted 50 passes and completed 45 in the final third. As well as this he created 62 chances for team-mates throughout the season.
Completing that spine is David Nugent. He may not have matched his record with England – he has scored in every game he has played for his country – but the former Portsmouth man scored 20 goals and set up a further 12, meaning that he was directly involved in almost half of the goals Leicester scored in the league.
“Our first goal,” Pearson said, “is to establish ourselves in the Premier League.” That foursome, barring injuries, will provide a healthy basis from which Leicester can achieve that aim. However, they are dangerously inexperienced when it comes to the Premier League. Peason’s CV extends to two games, both as caretaker of Newcastle – one was the 1-1 final day draw with Watford; the other was a 6-0 home hammering by Manchester United. And with the exception of Nugent, few of his players can boast about being involved in many more than that.
To address this problem, Pearson has brought in Marc Albrighton and Matthew Upson, both signed on a free. Were it not for their top-flight experience, these would be odd deals. Upson is 35, currently injured and will surely struggle to keep pace. As for Albrighton, the only thing he has done on a regular basis is disappoint and in Anthony Knockaert and Riyad Mahrez, City have better options out wide. It is difficult to see either as anything other than cover for a worryingly shallow squad.
Upson came to Leicester via Brighton but he is not the only one to make this journey. A sizeable chunk of the summer budget has been spent on Leonardo Ulloa. The Argentinian striker bagged 14 goals and four assists in the Championship last season and showed he can score the important ones too, heading in the goal that sent the Seagulls into the play-offs. However he has cost the club £8m. For a 28-year-old whose career is devoid of top-flight playing time, that is quite the gamble.
Pearson tended towards a 4-4-2 last season, with Nugent combining well with Jamie Vardy (who scored more goals than Ulloa and had the same number of assists). The Argentinian’s arrival thus comes with questions. Does Pearson dare disrupt the partnership between the duo? And will Ulloa, the club’s record signing, be happy to sit on the bench?
Last season, Leicester spent most of the time bossing games. Pearson has already admitted that will not be the case in the Premier League: “We are not going to dominate like we did last season, that goes without saying.” It will be interesting to see how he and his players adapt and whether he tries to find a new formation to suit the league.
They will still bring a certain swagger to proceedings, playing fast-paced, free-flowing, pass-heavy football. Plenty of the players have already said they feel confident and that will be boosted by the backing shown to Pearson. He and his assistant managers were handed new three-year deals in the summer.
As confident as they are and as good as they have been in pre-season (they have won all but one of their friendlies), City’s opening five fixtures could bring them back down to earth with plenty of bumps: Everton (home), Chelsea (away), Arsenal (home), Stoke (away) and Manchester United (home). It gets a bit easier after that but it is not inconceivable that going into the sixth game against Crystal Palace they are playing catch-up. The fans will worry about that as well as the inexperience and the lack of squad depth should no more players be added. However, come the final whistle on the final day, they should have shown enough to ensure their Premier League status for another season at least.