Claude Puel takes over at Leicester City with much to prove to the fans
Claude Puel has a tall task to win over both the Leicester City dressing room and Foxes fans. The ex-Southampton boss didn't do a bad job at St Mary's, leading the Saints to eighth place last campaign and reaching the EFL Cup final. If he replicates that feat at Leicester, it will prove a fantastic season.
However, Puel's ultra-defensive tactics didn't sit well with his Saints playing squad. He reportedly lacked communication skills and training bust-ups weren't uncommon. Nonetheless, Leicester vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha says Puel is the "perfect fit," but the truth is ex-Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel said no, Sam Allardyce wasn't interested and David Wagner wanted to stay loyal to Huddersfield. Puel was at best their fourth choice, and that's going to make it a lot harder to win over his critics if he doesn't start well.
In the short term, he has five key tasks.
1. Unite the dressing room
Puel's first challenge is to win over players who remain loyal to Craig Shakespeare and perhaps even believe caretaker Michael Appleton deserved a longer stint after beating Swansea City (2-1) and Leeds United (3-1). Puel's relationship with Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy is going to be vital. These are the big characters at the club, and they are, so the reports say, not afraid to have a quiet word with the owners when unhappy. Leicester have gone through so many managers of late that the opinion of such seasoned Foxes stalwarts holds more weight than ever.
2. Find a balance in midfield
Leicester will surely never find a better midfield partnership than N'Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater. Kante's departure is still being mourned, but Drinkwater's more recent Chelsea exit has caused some pressing problems. Leicester should have never sold the England midfielder unless they were positive Adrien Silva's move from Sporting could have been completed before the window shut. In the end they dilly-dallied (rather than "dilly-donged") and missed the deadline by 14 seconds. As a result, City lack a central-midfield talisman. The now-fit Vicente Iborra could grow into that role and Wilfred Ndidi has shown plenty of promise. Even Matty James (who was ahead of Drinkwater under Nigel Pearson) could prove a regular starter. Right now, though, the central midfielders just don't pick themselves and there is also real lack of creativity. This was most evident in the drab, 1-1 home draw with West Brom, which cost Shakespeare his job. The good news for Puel is Mahrez appears back on form, but he needs support and to be utilised in a formation that gives him as much freedom as possible.
3. Get Iheanacho firing
Puel must also get the best out of Kelechi Iheanacho. The forward opened his Foxes account against Leeds in the Carabao Cup, but he hasn't scored in the Premier League yet. Iheanacho began his career as an attacking midfielder, but Pep Guardiola utilised him as a direct replacement for Sergio Aguero at Manchester City. The 21-year-old scored seven goals last season and 14 in 2015-16. He should be more than capable of getting into double figures and if he does, Leicester will be nowhere near the relegation zone. Puel must decide whether to stick with Vardy and the in-form Shinji Okazaki in a 4-4-2, or consider a three-pronged attack.
4. Lock down a formation
Puel will certainly arrive with some selection headaches. Being a defensive-minded coach, before he can determine what to do with his strikers, he must decide whether he wants to keep a back four or revert to a back five. The latter is a tempting option when centre-back Robert Huth returns from ankle surgery. With the excellent Harry Maguire undroppable right now and Wes Morgan the captain, Puel could choose to field all three. Ben Chilwell would certainly relish this formation as well, and as a wing-back could end up usurping Christian Fuchs by the end of the season. Fielding an extra defender certainly worked for Pearson during Leicester's so-called "Great Escape" of 2014-15, but doing so will make it harder to utilise all of Leicester's flair players and won't ensure the pacy, counterattacking brand of football the owners crave. Puel's other option is revert to his preferred 4-3-1-2. This would suit Mahrez and allow Leicester's new boss to employ the wealth of defensive midfield options at the club, but it could make width a real problem and force Marc Albrighton either out of position or the side entirely.
5. Get 40 points
Ultimately, whatever Leicester's longer-term European ambitions may be, securing safety is the most urgent aim. To ensure survival, Puel must hang on to Vardy and Mahrez in the January transfer window. New signings are also needed, particularly at the back -- for example, Danny Simpson needs cover -- but keeping this duo is the top priority. Shakespeare actually bought very well in the offseason, so Puel has a strong squad to work with. That's why there is no excuse to get sucked into a relegation battle. If results don't go his way, Leicester's owners surely won't be afraid to sack him before the season is out, especially with survival specialist Pearson working for them at OH Leuven and probably more than willing to return for a third spell at the Foxes. A shock Pearson return is unlikely (the owners may even argue it's impossible) and it is clearly hugely unfair to Puel to be seriously talking about his replacement before he's even taken charge of his first game. But that's football these days, and one thing's for sure: Puel really can't afford bad start or he just may go down in history as Leicester's shortest-ever permanent manager.
Ben Jacobs is ESPN FC's Leicester City blogger. Follow him on Twitter @JacobsBen.