Claude Puel has been styled as the enemy of British coaching but he is owed more respect, writes Adam Bate.
It was an appointment that polarised supporters and is said to have surprised the team, too. Former Leicester player Stan Collymore declared himself “baffled, saddened and angered” by the move, branding the new manager a “whimpering, crestfallen soul” even before he had taken his first training session. It is fair to say that Puel was up against it from the start.
It is true that his Southampton experience was not without problems. An eighth-place finish masked a 17-point drop and Saints were only two clear of Stoke in 13th. But Puel still took them to a League Cup final and within a whisker of a first major trophy in over 40 years. This was not failure. And besides, there is more to Puel’s career than his season at St Mary’s.
Given the underwhelming reaction to his appointment, one would think that the Frenchman had a shameful managerial record and the reputation to match. So it may come as a shock to discover there are those within the game who have nothing but respect for Puel and his credentials – icons of English football such as Thierry Henry and Eden Hazard among them.
“I played with him and had him as a fitness coach as well,” former Monaco team-mate Henry told Sky Sports last year. “He is a great guy and a good coach. He helped me work on bending the ball and stayed with me after training to develop my finishing. If you want to work and you are willing to listen, you are going to improve with Claude Puel.”
Far from a whimpering figure, Puel’s reputation as a player in France was that of a tough guy in the mould of Roy Keane. However, it is the example of another current Premier League manager, Antonio Conte, that is perhaps the more apposite one – a midfielder who relied upon working harder than the rest in order to stay at the top of the game.
A fitness fanatic, as a player he was one of the few whose lifestyle was not transformed by Arsene Wenger’s arrival at his club. Glenn Hoddle, a colleague at Monaco, recalls Puel as one of the hardest workers he has ever known. This is a man, after all, who beat his own players at the bleep test in one of his first training sessions as Lyon coach at the age of 46.
Puel praised the way his Leicester side played in the 2-2 draw at Stoke
Puel’s three seasons at Lyon brought a trio of top-three finishes but no title. That frustrated fans but was typical of the consistency of a coach who has achieved no fewer than nine top-four finishes in France – at least two with four different clubs. Like Wenger, he won the title with Monaco, although his efforts at Lille and Nice were perhaps even more impressive.
Laurent Roussey, a former France international, worked as his assistant for four years at Lille, a period during which Puel was named manager of the year in 2005. “I have excellent memories of our collaboration together,” Roussey tells Sky Sports. “It was a successful one because the team progressed each season to eventually qualify for the Champions League.”
Roussey bristles at the criticism that his former colleague has received. “It is true that he places great importance on the defensive phase of the game,” he adds. “But this is because he understands that the building block of success is a well-organised team. That can take a little time, but afterwards you can work on the offensive side of the game too.
“Claude is a big character with specific ideas about the game that he wants to put into practice. He will need players to listen if they are to fulfil their potential. He is different from those coaches who look to change it with a short, sharp shock. He will need a little more time because he likes to improve players technically, tactically, mentally and physically.”
At Lille, he had the chance to do that with Hazard, giving the precocious winger his debut at the age of 16. Asked recently to name a coach key to his development, Hazard cited Puel. At Nice, there was also the chance for Puel to demonstrate that he could relaunch careers as well as start them, getting a tune from the notoriously temperamental Hatem Ben Arfa.
“He managed to get the best out of Ben Arfa and I am not surprised,” said Henry. “He would go through walls as a player and he will demand that of his players. He wants a team that plays with discipline and organisation but also freedom.” It is why suggestions that Riyad Mahrez would be stifled are appearing hasty. Instead, he has already found himself central to Puel’s plans.
The new Leicester boss has spoken of seeking to “seduce” Mahrez into staying. Seducing a sceptical public could take even longer. But for all the fuss surrounding Puel’s appointment, there is some logic behind Leicester’s move. In fact, there are parallels with the same owners’ outrageously successful decision to turn to Claudio Ranieri in 2015.
He too was an unfashionable candidate. Many were blinded by his four games with Greece in a managerial career that has now passed the 1000-game mark. For some, familiarity had long since bred contempt, but Leicester looked beyond the noise and saw a coach who had spent the best part of 25 years at the right end of the table in Europe’s major leagues.
Nobody is suggesting that Puel can come close to emulating Ranieri’s accomplishments at the King Power Stadium. But to replace Craig Shakespeare with Puel is hardly an inexplicable act of folly. Nor is it nonsense if they were more convinced by the Frenchman’s CV than that of Sean Dyche or David Moyes. Puel might not prove successful. But he deserves more respect.