Once again, and without good reason, Claude Puel seems to be on the verge of being unfairly dismissed from a position in the Premier League, the Frenchman once more a symbol of the lack of patience currently on display at the vast majority of clubs in the English top flight. Various members of the English media have tried to pin his so-called failings on his “quiet demeanour,” his “chopping and changing” or a “lack of intensity in taking training,” but could it be that, despite his manifest success in a variety of situations, his real undoing is simply a combination of boardroom impatience and the well-moneyed player and his attendant power? To wit, Puel, now with his sixth club, and second outside of his native France, has inarguably succeeded at each turn, but despite this, has more often been forced out, save his departures from Lille and Nice.
That said, there have been, by and large extenuating circumstances for each of these situations. At Southampton, Puel achieved nearly the same placement as his predecessor, Ronald Koeman, but in a much more exacting situation. It may be that his football was far from exciting, but pragmatism was needed to solidify the Saints’ position in the Premier League, and this, as well as a run to the League Cup final, was handily achieved despite having to reconstruct a defence left threadbare by the sale of Jose Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk’s lengthy absence due to injury.
In attack, again, Southampton under Puel were often stagnant, but the sales of Sadio Mané, Graziano Pelle and Victor Wanyama, coupled with Charlie Austin’s injury record, left him with few options; a top half finish with that set of players, especially in light of their current plight, now seems near-miraculous.
Puel was also pushed out at Lyon, but not before leading Les Gones to a Champions’ League semi-final, even as the club struggled financially, hamstrung by the twin disappointments of injuries to Yoann Gourcuff and the poor form of Aly Cissokho. So, too, at Monaco, where despite Puel winning a league title and doing well to develop the likes of Rafa Marquez and Marcelo Gallardo, the team, not yet the moneyed entity of the present, were also forced to sell their most talented players, including David Trezeguet, Willy Sagnol and Fabien Barthez. Thus, while Puel has been shown the door more than once in his career, it can be also argued that when he has been given time and support within a club’s means, he has not only succeeded, but also overseen his sides playing some rather exciting football.
At Nice and Lille, where he spent four and six seasons respectively, Puel was given time and patience was duly rewarded, with Lille becoming a Champions’ League regular. Not only did Les Dogues of this era play attractive football, they were also a young squad, with Mathieu Debuchy, Yohan Cabaye and Kévin Mirallas all playing important roles while also handing debuts to the likes of Eden Hazard and Adil Rami.
So, too, at Nice, where even as Lucien Favre has moved the club on from Puel’s turn at the helm, the Swiss has not only benefitted from a considerably higher level of investment but also Puel’s improvement of youngsters like Ricardo Pereira and Alassane Pléa. Too, Puel has shown a good touch with veteran players as well, getting the best out of Hatem Ben Arfa during their lone season together.
While it is inarguably true that a manager must take the blame for his side’s recent tepid performances, that the Foxes have so comfortably achieved safety given their situation when Puel took over is more than a counterweight to any rumoured friction within the squad. Too, there is the matter of Leicester’s player transfer policy. The club have done well in recent years, spotting bargains with the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, N’Golo Kanté, Wes Morgan and Jamie Vardy, but since returning to the Premier League, there have also been no small number of missteps, including the Adrien Silva fiasco and Islam Slimani and Kelechi Iheanacho failing to impress.
Add to this how unsettled Riyad Mahrez seemed to be after Manchester City’s aborted pursuit in the January window, and the personnel situation at Leicester has hardly ideal, forcing Puel to make do with a poorly assembled squad in which he had no hand in building.
At Leicester, then, it may be near-impossible to undervalue Puel’s eye for bringing in young players and improving them. Leicester are likely to undergo significant turnover this summer, with Mahrez expected to be sold and a raft of older players (Christian Fuchs, Shinji Okazaki, Wes Morgan, Jamie Vardy) also in the running to seek greener pastures. Pereira, Jean Michaël Seri and Pléa stand out as recent examples, but Puel has also plucked the likes of Éric Abidal, Michel Bastos and Stephan Lichsteiner from relative obscurity. If Leicester do want to invest this summer, do the club’s ownership want to trust a manager with good contacts in talent-rich France, or the leadership that brought in Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy?
In addition to his impressive track record in the transfer market, as he had in his previous tenures, including Southampton, he has also improved the play of the likes of Wilfred Ndidi, Ben Chilwell and Harry Maguire. Thus, given Puel’s combination of acumen in the transfer market and his ability to get the best out of young players, succeeding even whilst on a tight budget, he would seem an ideal manager for any ambitious side.
That rumblings over his future continue, though, point to the power of the player. Managers are certainly well-compensated, but players, given the tens of millions of pounds clubs are forced to bandy about in wages and transfer fees in the current environment, have come to represent the new apex of power in today’s game.
That well-compensated professionals, so obsessed by their own self-interest, would be unhappy given a perceived lack of clarity in certain aspects of Puel’s approach is certainly understandable, but these players, and the club’s owners would do well to take a more holistic approach to his career, recognising him for the successful manager he has been throughout it.
If not, the worry here is that rather than scrapping at the fringes of the Europa League places, Leicester, with that mooted mass exodus and another potentially poor transfer window, could quite easily find themselves in a similar position to where Southampton are at present, hamstrung by unrealistic expectations and short-sightedness and more worried about survival than a top-half finish.