Simon Hart: Leicester City have toughened up after last year's play-off agony
Life beyond the Premier League: Flying Foxes have recorded their best start to a season and sit top of the Championship
Wednesday 08 January 2014
By their own manager's admission, Leicester City's players could have been forgiven a slow start to this season. The heartache of last May's Championship play-off semi-final defeat to Watford – French winger Anthony Knockaert had a tie-winning injury-time penalty saved 20 seconds before Leicester conceded at the other end – may easily have prompted "a potential hangover" according to Nigel Pearson, but instead the opposite happened. "What's been clear from the first day in pre-season is the players have been very positive and I think that is credit to them," he said.
Positive is an understatement. Leicester have recorded their best start to a season and sit top of the Championship, 13 points better off than at this stage last term. Prior to last Saturday's FA Cup defeat at Stoke, they had posted four straight wins – including a 1-0 victory at Queen's Park Rangers and a 5-3 success against Bolton that led the visiting manager, Dougie Freedman, to describe them as "the best side in the Championship by a million miles". Should they beat promotion rivals Derby County in tomorrow's televised home fixture, they would start the weekend seven points clear, with hopes strengthened of a top-flight return after 10 years away.
For Pearson, it is reward for a bold approach: in this era of packed midfields, Leicester's game plan is built around two wingers and two strikers in a 4-4-2 formation. "What we have done this year is been prepared to not draw as many games – we've tried to win every game that we've played," the manager explained. "We've drawn three this year and won 16. I would rather draw than lose but the mentality with the type of players we've got is to go out there with a positive intent, which has got the best out of the players."
Pearson, 50, left Hull City to embark on his second spell as Leicester manager in November 2011, replacing Sven Goran Eriksson and taking a different approach to the Swede; where Leicester, newly wealthy after their Thai takeover in 2010, splashed out big money under Eriksson, Pearson's team-building is more considered. The Srivaddhanaprabha family, Leicester's owners, spent a reported £17m last year buying the King Power Stadium, yet when it comes to transfers Pearson acts with Financial Fair Play in mind. Steve Walsh, his head of recruitment and once Jose Mourinho's European scout at Chelsea, provides detailed scouting portfolios packed with video and data analysis and they have brought in young players with a resale value like Knockaert, Jamie Vardy – a pacy striker signed from then non-league Fleetwood Town – and Danny Drinkwater, a creative midfielder from Manchester United.
Last summer, meanwhile, Pearson added to the blend old heads such as the ex-Blackpool forward Gary Taylor-Fletcher and former Southampton captain Dean Hammond and, with the younger players a year older and wiser, the aim now is to avoid a repeat of last term's dip in form which brought one win in 14 from the start of February. "We were in a similar position last year," noted defender Richie de Laet. "We are determined to not repeat that."
The anticipated arrivals of Kevin Phillips and Le Havre winger Riyad Mahrez should help and so far at least, though, the Foxes' focus has not wavered. And according to home-grown centre-back, Liam Moore, Leicester's resilience cannot be questioned. "There've been a lot of tough games which last season we might have drawn or even lost but you see players throwing their body on the line and you can see how much it means to the squad," he said. "If we were to get up, it would be that much sweeter."
Nigel Pearson has been rewarded for a more positive approach with Leicester topping the Championship
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