Exploring Leicester City’s exciting rebirth under Enzo Maresca

 | December 07 | 

8 mins read

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Following Leicester City's surprise relegation from the Premier League in 2022-23, the majority of football fans thought that the Foxes would be having just a mini-retirement, as Gary Neville would put it, in the Championship.

Things were pretty bleak last year as Brendan Rodgers' magic ran out at the King Power Stadium and former Aston Villa boss Dean Smith was unable to steer the club away from the second tier. It was clear that the football side needed a new perspective.

New manager Enzo Maresca came in to press the reset button and rebuild the club by implementing his expansive, front-foot style of football. The Italian has so far done an excellent job in the post as Leicester sit top of the table, comfortably ahead of fellow relegated sides Leeds United and Southampton.

Leicester have picked up 46 points from their opening 19 matches in the second tier, winning 15 of them and losing just three. And even after suffering a recent blip of consecutive defeats against Leeds and Middlesbrough, they've proven their character by picking up seven points from the last nine available.

Most people were expecting the Foxes to have a ball in the Championship this year but it has so far gone better than anyone could've expected. So what has Maresca done to revitalise the club in such a short space of time, and does it bode well for them if it continues and they secure an instant return to the Premier League?

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The style of play

During the car crash of 2022-23 there was no clear structure to Leicester's style of play as Rodgers' message began to reach its sell-by date, and Smith's short-term impact was negligible at best. It was tough for fans to watch a team which had been on a fairytale rise suddenly plummet and enter a period of reassessment.

Maresca was the front-runner for the managerial position over the summer having been Pep Guardiola's assistant at Manchester City, helping the club record a historic treble last year. It was clear that he would look to implement a swashbuckling style similar to City's at the King Power Stadium, especially as that is how he tried to get Parma to play in his first senior command two years ago.

The 43-year-old has Leicester building their attacks from the back and so he needs his defenders and goalkeeper to be comfortable with the ball at their feet. He has tended to a deploy a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system and, similar to what we have seen at Manchester City and Arsenal, Leicester tend to ask a defender to step into the middle of the park in possession.

Ricardo Pereira has mostly had that role this season, and his transition up the pitch is aided by goalkeeper Mads Hermansen's step up to form part of the defensive line so that the Foxes can find angles to move up the pitch quickly.

Maresca recently outlined this in a tactical analysis for The Coaches' Voice. He explained: "One of the reasons we try to bring the full-back inside is defensively. So in the moment when we lose the ball, we have five players defending the transition. Another reason why we do this is so we can have an overload in the middle so that we have an extra player."

This allows the number eights on the field, notably Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, to occupy space higher up the field and attack the inside channels, linking up with the wingers. Losing Maddison and Barnes was a huge blow, but keeping Dewsbury-Hall was a massive bonus.

When it comes to defending, Leicester hold a 4-4-2 shape in which one of the number eights will move in line with the striker while the other will shift across to narrow the space as the Foxes try to win the ball back quickly.

Maresca's philosophy has yielded positive results on the pitch, with 34 goals scored and only 12 goals conceded - the best defensive record in the division.

The players

For these methods to be successful, Maresca needed the right players to implement them, especially in light of the losses of two key attacking players in James Maddison and Harvey Barnes over the summer which left big holes to fill. Despite Leicester's poor season last year, the duo scored 23 league goals between them, as well as providing 10 assists.

There were still some players of Premier League quality among Leicester's ranks come the end of the summer transfer window but Maresca also strengthened his squad with players who either had Premier League experience or would have the potential to make the step up.

Hermansen was brought in to be the new number one, and what a signing he has been so far. He is the perfect profile for a 'keeper in a possession-based side. No other shot-stopper in the division has made more pass attempts than the Danish star's 914 this term. He is extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet and will always look for the clever pass rather than thumping the ball upfield.

The defence has been shuffled around a few times this season, with the exact approach being tailored to each opponent. But Maresca has put a lot of faith in the players who were part of Leicester's relegation, including Wout Faes and Pereira. Both have grown under his leadership and one player who has benefitted more than most from his arrival is Jannik Vestergaard, who had previously had a torrid time in Leicestershire since arriving from Southampton in 2021.

He and Faes have been the most used centre-back pairing by Maresca this campaign and, with just 12 goals conceded, they have been doing a stand-up job in protecting Hermansen.

Then there is the quality and energy that Dewsbury-Hall, Wilfred Ndidi and summer arrival Harry Winks bring to the middle of the park, as well as the flair from wide areas in another Maresca addition, Stephy Mavididi, and academy graduate Kasey McAteer. Collectively, this Leicester team is well-balanced and it is not surprising to see them cruising in the Championship with the football on show.

Goals are being shared across the squad, too. With the Foxes reliant on Maddison and Barnes last year, the only other two players to score more than three Premier League goals in the relegation campaign were Kelechi Iheanacho (five) and Patson Daka (four).

Almost halfway through this Championship campaign, 28 of Leicester's 34 goals have been scored by a group of seven players: Jamie Vardy, Dewsbury-Hall, Iheanacho, McAteer, Mavididi, Winks and Abdul Fatawu. It always pays to have several goalscorers in your squad and the Foxes have got that covered this year, and it is playing a big part in their success under Maresca, especially with the amount of chances they create (average of 14.4 shots per game in the Championship).

 

The signings

Ultimately, the new faces Maresca acquired over the summer have been crucial in getting the Foxes to play his way. Winks is an energetic midfielder who Maresca would've likely kept tabs on when they were in Italy at the same time, Winks having been on loan at Sampdoria.

Leicester gave the 27-year-old the platform to revive his career in England after his time at Tottenham Hotspur had clearly come to an end. There was little doubt that he would thrive in the second tier, and he has been one of the best-performing midfielders in the division.

Conor Coady was captured from Wolverhampton Wanderers and although injuries have hindered his chance of gaining regular minutes this season, this is still a move which brought a voice and leadership into the dressing room. Coady was revered for these qualities with both Wolves and England.

From Hermansen's performances you can see precisely why Maresca wanted him and his coolness on the pitch has such an impact on his team mates as they progress up the pitch.

Offensive players Mavididi and Cesare Casadei have played their part so far, with the former causing defenders a lot of problems from the left flank. The fresh bodies have added a new dynamic for Leicester to play but it also cannot be underestimated how much of an effect Maresca has had on players who were already at the King Power and whose confidence was shattered following their Premier League relegation.

As important as the summer signings have been, it is the collective buy-in from players old and new which has helped to create the perfect cocktail for the Foxes to get into a position to soar straight back to the top flight at the first attempt.

It is too soon to say how this team would get on back amongst the big boys, especially with Burnley's stunted progress in mind. Vincent Kompany's side were last year's Leicester in the Championship and blew the division away, but they have endured a miserable start to life back in the Premier League.

As such, it is too soon for the Foxes to be thinking that far ahead but, with their vast experience in the top flight, they won't be so naive when they do return to the promised land.

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