Reshaping Arsenal: Life after Alexis Sanchez
The much bigger change waiting to happen at Arsenal
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Things can change quickly in the English Premier League. In just 12 months, Leicester City went from a relegation-threatened club to league champions. And then the opposite again. Few expected them to challenge for the title again after their 2015/16 success, but it seems like owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was one of them. With the side struggling, there have been two managerial changes in less than 12 months. After a couple of twists and turns, the Foxes seem on the rise again.
Srivaddhanaprabha has been heavily criticised for his quick trigger pulling, and the way he got rid of Claudio Ranieri was ruthless indeed, but he's getting the last laugh now. Under Claude Puel, the former champions of England are playing like ones again.
Since the former Southampton boss was hired in October, there have only been two sides that have picked up more points in the Premier League than Leicester - the magnificent Manchester City, who can probably already have their title party during the New Year celebrations, and Burnley, who seem to be inspired by Leicester's Cinderella story two seasons ago.
Alongside the team's success, the 56-year-old Frenchman has quickly rebuilt his reputation in England. Last season, his Southampton side probably cemented its place among the most boring teams ever to play in the Premier League. Results wise he did well with an 8th place finish and guiding the team to the League Cup final, but a lot more was expected on the pitch. We'll never know if he simply needed more time at the club to get the team playing like his Nice team in France, which was among the top scorers in Ligue 1 and still managed to have a good defensive record, but one's loss is another's gain.
Puel has helped Leicester regain its identity and confidence, while also adding a new element to the side. In a recent 3-2 away win over Newcastle, Leicester recorded 562 successful passes, which is their best ever mark in the Premier League since the stats started to be recorded in 2003/04. Endless backwards and sideways passes by his team was one of the reasons Southampton was so hard to watch under Puel, but at Leicester, he seems to have found the perfect balance between possession based and counter-attacking football.
Leicester has averaged 45.9 per cent of possession in their matches with Puel, which shows that they are still pretty much the same side - the Leicester of old, ready to hit you on the counter at any time - but they are now capable of finding more ways to get wins. And having an inform Riyad Mahrez in the side also certainly helps.
Mahrez's desire to leave the club during the summer transfer window was well documented. He didn't want to play for the team anymore, and fair play to him for sticking out the whole disappointing 2016/17 campaign. During the first few games of the season, his body language actually didn't suggest that he didn't want to be at the club, but the performances were sorely lacking.
The Algerian started the season with two assists, but it took him until October 16 to score the first goal of the season. Ironically, it came in Craig Shakespeare's final game in charge of the Foxes. It's gotten better and better ever since then for the 26-year-old and probably not because of the new blonde hair. It's all Puel's work.
Puel hasn't been afraid to try Mahrez in a more central role, just behind Jamie Vardy. We all know how well these two can link up and actually when you think about it, it's even baffling why Ranieri and Shakespeare didn't try it more often. This has also allowed Demarai Gray to play more. He's another one who's come to life under Puel. But back to Mahrez first.
The former PFA Player of the Year had recorded only one goal and two assists before Puel took charge. Since then, he's been involved in a goal in nearly every game. He's scored three goals in the last four outings and overall, has four goals and two assists to his name since Shakespeare was let go. This surge means that he's already been involved in the same amount of goals (9) he was during the whole of last season. Also, in the last three games, he's created more scoring chances (10) than he did in the eight matches Shakespeare was in charge this season.
As noted, Mahrez also isn't the only player shining under the guidance of Puel. Back in Nice, the Frenchman was known as a manager, who wasn't afraid to put his trust into younger players. In fact, his Nice team with an average age of 24 was the youngest side in Ligue 1 for three consecutive seasons. The 21-year-old Gray is enjoying the trust put into him.
Gray had only one goal in 50 Premier League appearances before Puel took charge. He was a Ranieri signing back in January 2016, a few months before the club's title party. He ended up playing in only ten games, all as a sub, before the title was secured at the start of May. He was in a much more active role the season after, but really didn't look like a player capable of playing in the Premier League week in week out. At least not yet. But he only needed a run of games to prove his credentials.
The England U21 international has started six of Leicester's last eight Premier League games and has scored three goals during that run. Suddenly, the Foxes have another goal-threat, who's capable of scoring important goals. He did just that recently in a 1-0 win over Burnley. His contribution has been vital as for some reason, Jamie Vardy had struggled lately. He's been involved in only two goals during Puel's reign. However, with the team looking as exciting as ever, it shouldn't take long before he gets going. And when then happens, Leicester could find itself back in the Champions League in 2018.