Well. Where do we start?
Writing this after seeing Crystal Palace defeat Brighton to make the play-off final I can’t help but feel slightly jealous of Brighton. A 2 nil defeat with no fuss unlike the drama at Vicarage Road. But the Watford match doesn’t tell half the story of a strange season at the KP.
Last summer the rebuilding process began as Nigel Pearson prepared for his first pre season back and a chance to clear out the players he didn’t fancy and notably reduce the wage bill. Out went fringe players John Pantsil, Steve Howard and Matt Oakley. Along with big names Matt Mills, Sol Bamba, Lee Peltier and Darius Vassell. They were soon to be followed out into the loan market by Jermaine Beckford and Neil Danns In August.
In came Manchester United players, full back Ritchie De Laet and midfielder Matty James. Centre back Zak Whitbread joined as a free agent. Up front came Fleetwood Town’s Jamie Vardy for £1 million. An interesting name in the way of France under 21 international Anthony Knockaert joined with several Premier league clubs chasing his signature. Add this to January signings Danny Drinkwater, Ben Marshall and stalwart Wes Morgan this squad was beginning to show a more Nigel Pearson stamp. Many Leicester fans had doubts about the lack of quality in defence. Both full backs had no understudy and our centre backs consisted of Morgan, Whitbread, Sean St.Ledger and youngster Liam Moore.
The season started unevenly with 3 defeats in the first 5 league games all away from home. The pressure built on Nigel Pearson but eased when he went on a run of 6 wins in 7. From November to December there was a stuttering element to the performances with a 6 nil thrashing of Ipswich only ten days before a defeat at Leeds United. After a flattering display to beat Derby 4-1 a mini slump ensued with defeats against Millwall and Cardiff. By the end of December Man United’s young centre back Michael Keane arrived on loan. Results picked up and on new year’s day a 6-1 thrashing of Huddersfield where new signing Chris Wood (£1.5million from West Brom) made his debut with a couple of goals. At this point the Foxes hadn’t been out of the top 6 since September. January was a fine month with Bristol City, Middlesbrough and Wolves despatched to leave Leicester in 2nd place going into February and finely poised for a push at automatic promotion. We had one of the best defences and home record’s in the league and would surely be able to push on.
What followed in the remaining 3 months can only be described as a collapse. Strikers suddenly stopped scoring and players started making massive errors. It started with 2 late goals at Peterborough and never seemed to end. Add this to late goals against Charlton, Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday, Cardiff, Millwall, Brighton and Birmingham that cost us roughly 13 points. Of Course we had late winners of our own against Bolton and crucially Nottingham Forest (first league win at the City Ground in 41 years) to scrape into the play-offs. In a 3 month spell we had won 4 of 17 games. But after the drama of final day a wave of optimism sprang through the city and into the stands with an incredible atmosphere and a first leg display against Watford dispelling the previous football lessons Watford had already served us twice this season. We took a slender 1 nil advantage to Vicarage Road. The second leg started promisingly and after a brilliant first half Vydra goal was cancelled out again by David Nugent the second half was set. What followed was a constant bout of Watford possession and pressure. They had few chances but when Vydra gave Watford the lead the inevitable defeat seemed to be looming. We looked leggy and unable to string passes together and barely troubled Almunia in the match. Knockaert found some space and went down admittedly easy to win a penalty. What followed was farcical from inexperienced players. How a penalty novice can be allowed to take a penalty of such importance is surely an oversight by the management team, the players and ultimately the man in question. The penalty save is easier to take than the one yard rebound that was there for the taking. The players allowed the drama to get the better of them and several were caught ball watching rather than marking players as Watford’s classy Anya attacked the channels unchallenged where composure was found in Hogg and Deeney and another team added to the list of late goals against. Pandemonium at one end. Despair at the other. Season over. Ten years outside the Premier League guaranteed.
The Pressure was on Pearson throughout the final 3 months from external forces but it should be noted that the owners left Pearson to get on with his job and allow a Leicester City manager to start and finish a season for only the sixth time in thirteen seasons since you know who. The season from the owners, playing staff and management team’s point of view was a failure. The whole club talked about Premier League all season and in truth we were never really close. We managed only 2 points more than last season but somehow finished in the top six. In terms of achieving promotion we could and should have had a shot at the play-off final but the margins were small and not in our favour this time. It would be wrong not to acknowledge that the better team will be playing at Wembley on May 27th. Gianfranco Zola has had financial backing and used creativity in the loan market but to build a quality team in such a short space of time needs to be noted. Steve Bruce at Hull again had financial backing and a decent squad and in his first full season takes Hull City back to the summit. Ian Holloway only joined Crystal Palace in November and will be having a crack at Wembley for a third time in four seasons.
Nigel Pearson has had to pick up the pieces of Sven Goran Eriksson’s reign which was littered with many silly contracts and certainly not the sort of players he would have sought had he have been left in charge in 2010 after the previous playoff defeat. But when we look at the managers that have achieved more in less time on similar budgets it’s hard to not ask questions of Nigel Pearson.
The squad was and has been too small all season. Not enough rotation was made nor was sought particularly when players were consistently playing badly. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by many Leicester fans how tired the players looked compared to Watford in the play-offs. This is what lead to many late goals and therefore points lost.
Defensively we were strong for large parts of the season but this mainly due to the excellent Kasper Schmeichel (who is surely destined for the Premier League with or without Leicester) with no less than 3 penalty saves (8 in 2 seasons)and Wes Morgan who is one of the best defenders in the Championship. Morgan was outstanding for most of the season but when he went on a dip in form we needed more than a Manchester United youth player to partner him. Michael Keane could well be a fantastic defender in the future and he has by no means been terrible but to ask him to perform to promotion winning levels was ultimately naive and what lead to the dip in form. Is he any better than our own youth product Liam Moore? A defender who we actually produced through the youth system. It’s debatable I know but we cannot be carrying players. It will only have become useful if Keane returns next season stronger and switched on when marking strikers.
Midfield was severely lacking in experience of a calm assured passer of the football. Drinkwater, James and King are all good players but they lack the composure and strength to keep the ball in possession and win it back when not. Also, the lack of goals from this area has become painful adding to unnecessary pressure on strikers. They needed an older more experienced head directing the play. Pearson’s answer in March was to play Ritchie Wellens, it did not work.
Bizarrely Nigel Pearson started with Jermaine Beckford and Jamie Vardy at the start of the season despite Beckford’s mind being elsewhere. It’s not Pearson’s fault that Beckford was uninterested and he was correctly moved on and hopefully for good this summer. What really puzzles me is the signing of Jamie Vardy to spearhead the attack. A jump of three divisions and straight into the team is an incredible amount of faith to put in a player but it ultimately proved too much with only 5 goals all season. Come December Pearson decided to purchase Chris Wood who certainly started with a bang before the goals started to dry up along with David Nugent. If Chris wood was that good why were we not signing him last summer? Also allowing Jeffrey Schlupp to go to Manchester United for an extended training loan is still puzzling and an indication why would have been nice.
Tactically 4-3-3 has been our undoing away from home as we have at times ended up asking David Nugent to play wide in this system when he clearly works best as a central striker. 4-3-3 inevitably becomes 4-5-1 with at least one of these players playing in midfield that doesn’t belong there. A long ball in this system rarely works either as Chris Wood is expected to hold the ball up surrounded by defenders with team mates usually more than 20 yards away. And when this doesn’t work where is our plan B? Steve Howard used to ruffle some feathers but his direct replacement Marko Futacs has barely featured. Nor has former fans favourite Martyn Waghorn.
But is it always the manager’s fault?
David Nugent can be solely blamed for 2 missing points after a rash challenge in the Birmingham game. Wes Morgan as well brings down Andy Keogh and gets sent off after 2 minutes against Millwall costing us a potential 3 points. And don’t get me started on missed penalties.
Nigel Pearson has built the nucleus of a side with an emphasis on youth. They will surely only get better and this heartbreaking experience should serve their characters well for another shot at the top 6.
Ritchie De Laet, Matty James, Jeffrey Schlupp and Anthony Knockaert have improved as players throughout the season and seem more and more geared to being forward thinking players. When Knockaert is on form he is virtually unplayable with the 2 goals against Huddersfield at the start of the season being truly spectacular. He will only get better and needs to show his quality more often to allow us to dictate games.
Unfortunately as a Leicester fan I have been made impatient by the owner’s ambition and their attitude. It could well be that they aim for the best every season and may well have a long term plan but it’s difficult to judge on their lack of public appearances. I think whoever is in charge next season everyone needs to shut up about promotion and just try and take pressure off the players and concentrate on winning matches.
So should we get rid of Nigel Pearson?
I’ve asked a lot of the supporters this question and not one of them has said yes. The key word has been ‘stability’. This makes a lot of sense as we all know managers bring new ideas and tend to overhaul the playing squad; with Financial Fair Play about to start it seems a wise move.
But it has to be stressed that not many people are overly impressed with Pearson, merely that he seems to be the best of slim options that are available.
But if we stick by our man we need to see a Nigel Pearson that has learnt from his mistakes and gets the players to learn from theirs. He needs to make sure the squad is ready with more players of better quality. We need to see he won’t stubbornly stick by players regardless of form. We need more cover in key positions and more experienced quality throughout the spine of the team. Plus a more confident approach away from home. Also the irony of seeing a manager unemotional and very monotone in interviews and on the sidelines must have Sven Goran Eriksson scratching his head at why he was criticised so much. Pearson has got to work harder with the fans or they will turn on him much quicker than he has been allowed
This is all very nice in practice but every day I am scanning Sky Sports News to see if Leicester are again looking for a new manager. The sooner the owners make their mind up the better.
Written by Damon Carter, We Are Going Up’s Leicester City blogger
Damon tweets at @dimski