Claude Puel has now been in charge of Leicester City for eight Premier League games, the same number that Craig Shakespeare oversaw at the start of the season. Now seemed like as good a time as any to take a closer look at the changes the frenchman has made.
The standout (positive) changes so far have clearly been on the attacking end; the Foxes have scored 1.9 goals per game under Puel compared to 1.1 under Shakespeare, and have looked very strong going forward recently.
There are obviously a lot of factors involved in this (midfield play, the role of the fullbacks etc) but the most striking difference for me by eye has been the link up play between the forwards. Things seem to be working more neatly and efficiently up top, so I set out to see if that was reflected in the stats.
In particular, I’m focussing on the five players who regularly play in the side’s “front 4”: Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki, Riyad Mahrez, Demarai Gray and Marc Albrighton. I’m ignoring Chilwell because he played so little under Shakespeare and has featured at fullback as much as a winger.
The obvious difference is in the amount of time they’ve all spent on the pitch, except for Vardy who’s been a constant throughout.
On average, this five have played slightly more, as Puel hasn’t tried as hard to find time for Islam Slimani or Kelechi Iheanacho, but Shinji and Albrighton have seen their share decrease in favour of Gray, whose playing time has skyrocketed.
Also interesting, Shinji “always plays 60 minutes” Okazaki has actually had comfortably the most variability in his play time under both managers. Very rarely plays the same amount twice in a row.
Mahrez has seen his time stabilise with Puel, but that’s mostly because Shakespeare dropped him against Bournemouth.
Other than there’s not a lot of interest, so we’ll move onto what they’re doing in that time. Since I’m trying to evaluate how well they’re linking up, I’m going to ignore the shooting, dribbling etc and focus just on the passing numbers.
On average (black) the forwards are seeing more touches of the ball per minute under Puel and passing slightly more, though their passes per touch is pretty much the same.
The obvious outlier is Jamie Vardy (red), who sees the ball much less and doesn't pass a lot either, but the real story is Marc Albrighton (purple). Playing less (and perhaps with less defensive responsibility) has allowed Marc to be much more effective when he is on the pitch; his touches are way up, but he’s actually passing more per touch as well.
Shinji (green) as well is on the ball more often, but his reduced minutes has actually led to a decrease in his passing rate. In part this is maybe reflected in his recent goalscoring, he’s just being more selfish, but as we’ll see later, he might have learnt to be more selective under the new boss as well.
Meanwhile, Demarai Gray (orange), the main recipient of Albrighton and Okazaki’s minutes, is just as effective in his increased role as he was before, so this change definitely looks like it was for the better, for both players.
Riyad Mahrez (blue) is touching the ball less often now, but there’s only so many touches to go around. What’s interesting is that, with more players getting on the ball around him, the Algerian is passing a lot more frequently (up about 15% per touch under Puel). Maybe this is why he’s suddenly being given more space to shoot off his left foot, which is never a good idea.
Completion % isn’t everything, as every Foxes fan should know by now, but it does tell us about how the team is playing and, in general, they’re completing more of their passes high up the pitch. Well, except Vardy, but he plays about 10 passes per game so that’s not a huge issue.
Shinji in particular has been able to increase his passing from “Vardy” to “Mahrez”. That’s no small feat. Maybe it’s the increased options around him in this system, maybe he’s getting a bit more space and time to pick his pass, it’s probably a combination of factors, as ever, but it’s still very impressive.
Demarai Gray has also been able to bring his accuracy up into the same range. At his age, you could certainly attribute some of that to development, particularly under a new coach with a great reputation.
In a slightly more speculative manner, I’d also like to suggest that, with more playing time, he doesn't feel quite the same necessity to make an immediate impact, going for the killer ball less often, but more efficiently.
This is all done with the stats available on the Leicester match reports on Whoscored.com which are really useful, but I’m sure something much more interesting could be done with access to more in depth stats (who are these passes completed to, for example).
The variance in the data is also very high, which is to be expected with pretty small sample sizes of eight games per manager.
Still, I think there’s a couple of things we can learn from this.
1) Demarai Gray really has benefitted from additional playing time, while Albrighton seems to have benefitted from getting a bit more rest. Both of these are very good for the team.
2) While the team is still capable of their trademark lightning fast breaks (as we saw on Wednesday against Southampton), Puel has them passing the ball more often now, and perhaps with a little more thought.
That idea of building on the key aspects of the previous regime’s tactics, but just adding in a little more patience and measure, is not so dissimilar from the changes we saw when Claudio Ranieri took over from Nigel Pearson. I’m not saying we can expect to see the same results, but I’m also not saying we can't.