Feature

How Leicester sealed promotion to the Premier League

By Adrian Kajumba 29 Apr 2024
Hamza Choudhury, Enzo Maresca

Adrian Kajumba looks at the impact of manager Enzo Maresca and how the Foxes' possession-based style has flourished

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A familiar name will be back in the Premier League next season as Leicester sealed their return at the first attempt.

Though they now look very different to the team that dropped out of the top flight in 2022/23, having been transformed by Enzo Maresca.

Here, we take a look at how the Foxes passed their way to promotion after being overhauled and overcoming a late stumble. 

What changed last summer?

Relegation last season brought an end to Leicester’s nine-year Premier League stay, one that included the most incredible title triumph in 2016. 

It also marked the end of an era for a number of players as inevitable post-relegation upheaval followed. 

James Maddison and Harvey Barnes were the main departures, moving to Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United respectively. 

Youri Tielemans to Aston Villa headed the list of players to leave at the end of their contracts, which also included Jonny Evans to Manchester United, Daniel Amartey moving to Besiktas and Nampalys Mendy, who joined Lens.

Timothy Castagne was another squad regular to move on, joining Fulham.

The most significant change, though, came in the dugout. 

Dean Smith left at the end of his short-term contract after replacing Brendan Rodgers in April. 

Smith’s exit paved the way for the appointment of the man who has masterminded Leicester’s promotion - Maresca. 

Who is Enzo Maresca?

A former West Bromwich Albion midfielder whose professional breakthrough came at the Hawthorns, Maresca also represented clubs in Italy, Spain and Greece during a near 20-year senior career.

In that time he was exposed to the methods of a number of respected managers he played under such as Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini, the coach who suggested he had what it takes to be a manager. 

But it was the approach of Pep Guardiola and his Barcelona side that Maresca - a Serie A champion with Juventus and two-time UEFA Europa League winner with Sevilla - “fell in love with” while he was an opponent in Spain, where he also played for Malaga.

Maresca later got to witness that approach first-hand during two coaching spells at Manchester City, from where Leicester appointed him last summer. 

After spending the 2020/21 season in charge of City’s elite development squad, Maresca’s second stint saw him return to Etihad Stadium in June 2022 as one of Guardiola’s assistants.

Maresca Man City
Enzo Maresca, second from left, had two spells working as a coach with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City

Maresca cites City as the best exponents of the style of play he prefers. 

“My idea with football is to try as much as we can to control the game,” Maresca said.

Along with a focus on creating overloads in central areas, that also means plenty of patient possession and passing. 

And Maresca has successfully implemented his philosophy at Leicester. 

Of their Championship rivals, only Southampton have a higher average possession this season than Leicester’s 61.2 per cent or have racked up more passes than the Foxes’ total of 25,216. 

Meanwhile Leicester also are the second-highest scorers with 86 goals, while their 39 goals conceded is the fewest. 

Who have been Leicester’s key players?

Maresca’s first three signings - Mads Hermansen, Conor Coady and Harry Winks (both below) - all strengthened Leicester’s spine and were a clear indication of the direction he wanted to go.

Conor Coady-Harry Winks

Maresca’s system requires his goalkeeper to step forward into the defence and become an additional outfielder when his team are in possession. Subsequently an ease on the ball is essential. 

Hermansen has been fundamental for Maresca. No Championship goalkeeper has attempted more than his 2,042 passes. 

He has excelled at the basics of the job too, ranking second for goals conceded per match (0.91) and third for save percentage (74.3 per cent). 

Coady was earmarked for a key role at the heart of Leicester’s defence where Maresca wants one of his centre-backs to help dictate play from deep. 

But he broke his foot in pre-season, opening the door for the previously out-of-favour Jannik Vestergaard who has seized his surprise opportunity.

Having not played a single league minute during Leicester’s relegation campaign, Vestegaard has enjoyed a remarkable revival under Maresca, making himself almost immovable and starting all but four league matches this season. 

And he has had more touches of the ball than any other Championship player (4,290), underlining his comfort in possession and importance in Maresca’s system. 

Vestergaard, Leicester
Jannik Vestergaard has been a major influence after returning to Leicester's first team

Midfielder Winks from Spurs was another early addition.

Maresca wanted a No 6 capable of pulling the strings, and consistent Winks has played a division-high 348 passes into the final third in the Championship and had the third most touches, with 4,094. 

Elsewhere, right-back Ricardo Pereira has adopted inverted full-back responsibilities for Maresca and 12-goal Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall emerged as Leicester's new central creative fulcrum following Maddison’s departure with his 108 chances created and 14 assists placing him fifth and third respectively in those two categories. 

Meanwhile injuries and advancing years may have restricted Leicester's top-scorer 37-year-old Jamie Vardy, but the wily striker remains effective. 

His 16 goals put him joint-fourth in the Championship scoring chart. Vardy's league-best rate of a goal every 101 minutes and total of seven strikes off the bench also highlight his efficient contributions to Leicester's promotion. 

Vardy, Leicester
How did their season unfold?

With their wealth of quality and Premier League experience, Leicester began the season as promotion favourites and for much of the campaign, it seemed to be only a matter of time before their Premier League return was confirmed. 

Initially they more than lived up to their billing. Thirteen wins in their first 14 matches saw them surge 14 points clear of third-placed Leeds United and Reading’s 106-point record from 2005/06 looked in danger.

Successive defeats to Leeds and Middlesborough, though, briefly checked their momentum. 

Another 10-match unbeaten run saw Maresca’s side begin 2024 with a 10-point lead at the top following a 4-1 win against Huddersfield Town on New Years’ Day. 

Loss of form

But between mid-February and mid-April came a wobble during which Leicester lost six of their 10 league matches.

What looked like being a procession back to the Premier League had slowly turned into a four-horse race. 

By the end of March, Leicester even temporarily dropped out of the top two. 

After two wins to start April, followed by back-to-back 1-0 defeats at Millwall and Plymouth Argyle, Ipswich Town had joined leaders Leicester on 88 points. 

Leeds were just one behind and Southampton not far back with matches in hand. 

 Win over West Brom the turning point

But, with their rivals unable to take full advantage of Leicester’s dip, all dropping points of their own just when the door had been opened, a hard-fought win over West Brom settled things down.

Fatawu, Leicester

Then a 5-0 thrashing of fellow pass masters Southampton left Leicester on the brink of promotion before Leeds’ defeat at Queens Park Rangers guaranteed them a place back in the Premier League.

“The ambition and the dream for us is to bring this club and this city, these fans, back where they belong,” Maresca said midway through the season. 

That mission has now been accomplished. 

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