Claude Puel is not an idealist. As a player, amidst the unremitting quaintness of the French Riviera, he carved out a reputation as a fighter – a gritty defensive midfielder who saw football as a game not to be played, but conquered. Renowned for his tenacity and combustible on-pitch presence, he accumulated over 600 appearances for Monaco, picking up five trophies across a 17-year stint.
As a manager, his style has evolved into one that can best be described as economical. Wrapped up in a subversive gilet/waistcoat hybrid, his touchline demeanour betrays very little of the fire that came to define his playing career.
It has become a well-worn and somewhat anodyne observation that Leicester City are in a kind of existential no-man’s land. After the fever dream of 2015/16, many predicted a spiral into oblivion. Indeed, a 2-1 loss to Premier League newcomers Hull on the first day of the season seemed to affirm the growing anxieties of an impending fall from grace. Not even a remarkable Champions League run could save Claudio Ranieri, tinker-man turned messiah, from the sack. The city of Leicester had become unfastened by a wholly understandable restlessness.
But the spiral never came. Replacing Ranieri was the first-team coach Craig Shakespeare. Shakespeare embodied a kind of ‘us against the world’ philosophy that re-energised a city crying out for some meaning. Unromantic but not uninspiring, he guided them to a 12th-place finish. More importantly, under his leadership, Leicester had a purpose again: to survive implosion against all the odds.
The lingering memory of the Premier League title had been vanquished and replaced by a desire to prove the naysayers wrong. The familiar but still blood-curdling threat of relegation was enough to paper over any cracks beginning to appear.
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The taste of survival soon turned sour. Leicester began the 2017/18 season poorly and Shakespeare was sacked in October, his team floundering in the relegation zone. Claude Puel was brought in. Deemed by the consensus to have been unfairly sacked by Southampton, he arrived at Leicester with a point to prove.
Unaffected by the deeply pervasive sense of disorientation at the club, Puel reimagined Leicester as a team that would only focus on the next game. By early December, Leicester were eighth. Invigorated by a distinctly Puelian balance between sound defensive structure and electrifying counter-attacking, his team began to take on an unassumingly formidable character reminiscent of the not-too-distant glory days.
Just over a year has passed and Leicester currently sit mid-table in the Premier League table. Claude Puel has been sacked. To the unconcerned neutral, it might seem that Leicester’s league position points to a certain type of high-functioning mediocrity. However, as Puel has been keen to point out, this label does not accurately reflect a season that is difficult to appraise.
It has been rare to watch a genuinely bad Leicester performance under his managership. Kasper Schmeichel remains an effervescent presence between the sticks. Between Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell, their defence is one laden with young talent. Wilfred Ndidi has matured into the defensive midfielder many thought he could be. Twenty-one-year-old academy graduate Harvey Barnes has terrified teams with his pace and directness.
Most significantly, attackers James Maddison and Jamie Vardy have formed an almost telepathic, likely-lads-esque on-pitch relationship; at times so in sync they border on indistinguishable. At their best, they have been sparkling – as proved by their impressive record against a gargantuan top six.
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This is all to say that it is very difficult to understand the prevailing idea that Puel’s Leicester were happy to exist as a pale reflection of what once was – content to fight listlessly for the best of the rest crown, devoid of character, zombified even. In reality, Puel built a team capable of beating anyone, but because they couldn’t beat everyone, he has been discarded.
Their 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge, coming from a beautifully crafted Vardy counter-attacking goal, proved that they are a technically adept outfit. Their very next game, a 2-1 win over Manchester City, was almost a pitch-perfect coalescence of Herculean spirit combined with fastidious organisation. Yet, despite this, an increasingly exasperated Puel found himself batting away questions about his job security on an almost weekly basis. A hard-fought and deeply unlucky home loss at the hands of a buoyant Manchester United side was met with a chorus of sterile boos.
The Frenchman found himself at the whims of a supporter-base staring deeply into the footballing abyss. We all assign meaning to the results of football games. For a lot of people, football is the most tangibly meaningful thing in the world. Generally, if your team wins, they are closer to a visible goal. If they lose, it hurts, because achieving that goal has now become harder.
Liverpool fans are driven by their desire to win a Premier League title. Manchester United fans are driven by their longing to once again sit at the top of English football. Newcastle fans are driven by their absurdly unnecessary mission just to stay in the top flight. Not one football game exists within a vacuum. Football is an essentially forward-looking sport. Each result is the building block for a future, no matter how abstract that future may be. Under Puel, Leicester have been abandoned to the present.
We all know football will go on forever. Our favourite players will be eulogised, eclipsed and eventually forgotten. It only takes one look at the Mitchell and Webb ‘Watch the Football’ sketch to be reminded of the never-ending, mind-bending futility of it all. But when the ball hits the back of the net, the stadium erupts, and your team jumps up three or four places in the league, it doesn’t feel meaningless.
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But what happens when utopia is achieved? What happens when, as in the case of Leicester, dreams become reality. What happens then? Ever since Andrea Bocelli’s haunting rendition of Nessun Dorma rang around the King Power Stadium on that fateful day, Leicester have been staring into the abyss. The already very tenuous idea of ‘meaning within football’ had been brutally dissolved. Only now, in recent months, has the abyss began to stare back – and it’s petrifying.
Puel was not an idealist. His teams – built for an immediate purpose – are so anchored in the present that it was, for Leicester fans, almost infuriatingly difficult to project any delusions of grandeur onto them. It is precisely this lack of idealism which has left Leicester fans feeling numb.
For many, just being in the Premier League is meaningful enough. The chance to play against the best teams, against the best players, in front of the best crowds – to be at the top. But for Leicester fans, just existing in the Premier League isn’t enough. Across Twitter and Leicester forums, it has become commonplace to see fans calling out for a return to the halcyon days of struggling in the championship, even if it would mean inevitable suffering. Because to suffer is to feel. At this point in time, all Leicester fans want is to feel something.
The untimely sacking of Puel is, then, about so more than Leicester City. It is about confronting the futility of football head on. It is about reshaping one’s idea of what really matters. It is about how to deal with the gaping existential abyss that lies just under the surface for every football fan who could have their most ludicrously ambitious dreams realised.
Kick by kick, game by game, the archetypal realist Claude Puel had been enveloped by an abyss he could neither control nor understand. His parting gift to Leicester is a sense of stability and longevity previously unseen throughout the entirety of their existence during the Premier League era. Crucially, however, stability at the expense of fantasy. So the next time a pundit idly remarks that Leicester are a football club “not going anywhere”, it should be acknowledged that they quite simply have nowhere to go.
By James Sharp