• Mar. May 21st, 2024

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How Leicester City clinched promotion: Maresca’s ‘idea’ bears fruit amid a backdrop of PSR uncertainty

The Athletic

“I said to the boys, ‘This could be one of the most memorable seasons of our careers if we get it right’.”

Conor Coady could barely contain his enthusiasm as he stood on the touchline talking to the few media who had made the trip to newly-promoted League One club Northampton Town last July for Leicester City’s first public outing of the Enzo Maresca era.


His attitude was a welcome tonic after the pain of an unexpected and devastating relegation from the Premier League just two months before.

The financial cost of going down, estimated to be around £100million ($124.9m), meant that it wasn’t just their new opponents in the second tier that would be on their trail. Both the Premier League and the English Football League would eventually also join the hunt, leaving the club facing fights both on the pitch and in the courts, with the spectre of a points deduction looming.

Post-relegation, chief executive officer Susan Whelan had emailed every staff member to reassure them it would be business as usual but, as it would prove, Leicester’s journey back to the top flight has been anything but.

It has been a challenging time, going back to the start of 2023, after the mid-season break for the playing of the World Cup in Qatar, when Leicester suffered a remarkable slide, leading to the departure that April of manager Brendan Rodgers. It was a decline that interim replacement Dean Smith could not reverse during his eight matches in charge.

The recovery began with the appointment of Manchester City assistant coach Maresca, the implementation of a new style of play, and a remarkable winning streak that, at one stage, took them 17 points clear of the play-off positions. But Leicester have had to overcome challenges: allegedly falling foul of profit and sustainability rules, and a wobble in form that threatened to leave them stranded in the EFL, as well as some fan dissatisfaction. 

It has been a long, difficult journey but the destination that was all that mattered. Leeds United’s defeat at Queens Park Rangers on Friday night confirmed Leicester had finally crossed the finishing line. 

Leicester’s usual business model was based on them being a Premier League club challenging for European qualification every season. Relegation hadn’t been factored in. There was no safety net, and they had just come crashing down to earth.

The reality of dropping down to the EFL after nine seasons in the top flight was they had to sell players and dramatically cut the wage bill. Ten first-team players left, seven of them as free agents as their contracts had been allowed to run down. These were players who had been recruited for fees worth £100million combined and were big earners, too: Youri Tielemans, Ayoze Perez, Caglar Soyuncu, Ryan Bertrand, Jonny Evans, Daniel Amartey and Nampalys Mendy.


Inevitably, in-demand trio James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Timothy Castagne were sold, for a combined £85million. Leicester tried for more sales too, including Wales international goalkeeper Danny Ward, but either couldn’t find buyers or players refused to move, as was the case with Harry Souttar. Deals also fell through for others, including Patson Daka’s proposed move to Bournemouth on deadline day in September.

Instead, loan exits for Luke Thomas (Middlesbrough), Victor Kristiansen (Bologna) and Boubakary Soumare (Sevilla) were arranged and the players who remained took hefty pay cuts via relegation clauses in their contracts they must have thought would never be activated.

The EFL felt the cost-cutting wasn’t far-reaching enough and more sales could have taken place but what probably irritated the league more was how active Leicester were in replacing departed players, spending £10million on Harry Winks and £7m on Coady — two full England internationals — and doing two £6m deals to bring in Stephy Mavididi and goalkeeper Mads Hermansen, as well as another £7.5m spend on striker Tom Cannon from Everton at the end of a frenetic summer window that also saw Yunus Akgun and Abdul Fatawu join on loan.

Conor Coady, Leicester

Coady during Leicester’s friendly against Northampton in July (David Rogers/Getty Images)

It was clear that Leicester were going all-in on securing an instant return to the Premier League. It was imperative, then, that they had the right man in place to lead them there. But rather than go down the expected route of bringing in an experienced older head with a track record of promotions to stabilise the situation, Leicester sought a new direction and a fresh identity.

With so much at stake, it was a surprise when they turned to talented coach but near-rookie manager Maresca. His stock was certainly high after assisting Pep Guardiola in leading City to last season’s treble and other clubs had made approaches.


Relegation had made Leicester a less attractive proposition to some of their long-term targets, including Graham Potter and Thomas Frank, so they decided to go with a young, energetic coach who could change the mood around the club by injecting his enthusiasm, and give the team a new approach. It was during a meeting with chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha in his London apartment that they discussed the shared vision for a rebirth of Leicester with a clear identity.

Within two weeks, Maresca was appointed and set about implementing his plan from the very first day players returned from their off-season breaks.

The first to meet Maresca was James Justin, who had remained at the club’s Seagrave training ground throughout the summer to work on his fitness after injury problems.

“He has been really intense,” Justin told the BBC, during the club’s pre-season tour in Thailand and Singapore. “He knows what his philosophies are and he sticks by them. Everyone loves the way he wants us to play and we are really enjoying it.

“He said to us on the first day that Leicester in the Championship was massive compared to Leicester in the Premier League. Every team (in the division) was going to try to get one over on us. We needed to keep level heads through the ups and downs.”

It wasn’t just the players adapting to a more patient, possession-based style of play, with Ricardo Pereira adopting an inside full-back role and goalkeeper Hermansen playing like an extra central defender when the team was in possession.

Some Leicester fans also needed time to embrace a different approach, but the opening 20 minutes of their friendly against Liverpool in Bangkok on July 30 demonstrated the potential of the team to Maresca.

“After the game, I said, ‘F***ing hell, guys’, because it was such a short time together before that,” Maresca told The Athletic. “We played so well for the first 15 to 20 minutes.”

Enzo Maresca, Leicester City

Enzo Maresca, centre, joined Leicester from Manchester City’s staff (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Maresca, who had been living at the Seagrave complex, put on daily double training sessions, coupled with video analysis sessions, to help his players embrace his ‘idea’. Instead of an overseas training camp, the whole team stayed in the on-site hotel at Seagrave for a week to fast-track the process.


“The manager is incredible with his tactical knowledge and his delivery of making it so simple and simplifying the game,” Winks told The Athletic. “Everything has a purpose as well. It’s not just possession for the sake of it. There’s a purpose to it and it’s really enjoyable because, as footballers, all we want to do is play football and then have the ball, and when you’re set up to not have the ball, it’s demoralising, especially for a player like myself.”

Maresca even revealed six players who had been expected to move on after relegation had changed their minds and wanted to stay. He wouldn’t give names but it wasn’t too difficult to guess that Wilfred Ndidi, enjoying a new attacking role, and Jannik Vestergaard, who had been frozen out by Rodgers the previous season but was now playing an integral role following an injury to Coady in pre-season, were two of them.

“I had to change the mindset of the players,” Maresca explained. “I had to understand if the players still here could switch from last season to this one, which isn’t easy, and convince new players to come to the Championship.”

Wout Faes was another who had been expected to move on.

“The mood was low, because obviously we got relegated, which we didn’t expect and didn’t want,” Faes told The Athletic. “We need to fix it. I think the objective is clear for everyone and that’s why everybody is very focused and hungry to win every game and get promoted.”

In terms of that mission, Maresca and his side got off to a perfect start, despite still adapting to the new system.

They won 13 of the first 14 league games and, after successive 1-0 defeats against Leeds United and Middlesbrough in early November, they kicked on again, winning seven matches out of nine, and remaining unbeaten for the rest of 2023.

Jamie Vardy, Leicester

Club legend Jamie Vardy continued to score goals for Leicester (Harriet Lander/Getty Images)

By the end of the year, they had 62 points on the board out of a possible 75. It could have been more but for stoppage-time equalisers for Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town. A record points haul was predicted, but Maresca knew that level would be hard to maintain for the full season.

“What the players were doing is not normal — winning, winning, winning — so when you lose a game, there will be a big noise,” he said after that Middlesbrough defeat on November 11. “That is part of football; the process, the league. I always knew we’d lose games. We just need to focus now on what we need to do to try and improve.”


Between January 13 and February 14, Leicester dropped just five points in seven games to carve out a 12-point lead over Leeds in second and move 14 ahead of third-placed Southampton in the race for one of the two automatic promotion spots, but while results continued on the pitch, problems had already started off the field.

In March, it emerged that the EFL’s club financial reporting unit (CFRU) had tried to enforce a business plan on the club over concerns they were on course to breach the league’s profit and sustainability rules (PSR), which would have forced them to reduce their budget and sell players in the winter transfer window.

Leicester successfully argued against it at an independent arbitration hearing but PSR concerns had already made a huge impact on Maresca’s January transfer plans. He had hoped to strengthen while his side were in such a good position in the table and seemed surprised when he was then told he would have to sell before he could buy.

His problems escalated when Chelsea surprisingly recalled Cesare Casadei from what was meant to be a season-long loan and fellow midfielder Ndidi suffered a hamstring injury that would keep him out for several months.

With his attacking midfield options reduced, the last thing he needed was to see his key No 8 Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, who has gone on to be named in the Championship’s all-star team of the season with Hermansen, sold at mid-season. The club rejected a £20million bid from top-flight Brighton & Hove Albion, who may have thought Leicester’s need to sell would force them to accept a low offer.

Harry Winks, Leicester

Leicester spent £10million on Harry Winnks (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

But the financial problems weren’t because Leicester didn’t have money — it was because they couldn’t spend the money they had.

They tried to. A deal to bring in Stefano Sensi on loan from title-bound Serie A side Inter Milan with a view to a permanent deal collapsed on the last day of the winter window over delays caused by paperwork. Leicester had also wanted to install a clause in the deal, after they discovered Sensi had an ankle injury. The Italy international midfielder would later have surgery to fix the issue.


That attempted signing wouldn’t have helped their standing with the EFL, which seemed determined to punish Leicester, enforcing a registration embargo in March at the same time as the Premier League charged the club with a breach of its own PSR rules during the 2022-23 season.

The club’s accounts for that period hadn’t been published at the time of the charge but after Easter, they revealed an £89.7million loss, adding to a £92.5m loss the previous year. Add in a £31m loss for 2020-21 and the club’s losses were now over £200m for the three-year cycle when only £105m was allowable under Premier League rules.

Leicester came out fighting, beginning legal actions against both the Premier League and the EFL, while admitting in their accounts that they may have been in breach but insisting they would only accept a punishment in accordance with existing rules.

The EFL eventually accepted, after taking legal advice, that it could not punish the club this season for the alleged breach in 2022-23.

Things appeared to be unravelling off the pitch, with growing discontent among the fans towards some of the upper management at the club, as well as some anti-EFL sentiment too.

The stakes were getting higher and the pressure to achieve promotion grew, as failure would leave Leicester open to the EFL’s determination to make an example of a club it perceived to be flouting the rules in order to try to go straight back up. A possible points sanction once back in the Premier League was seen as the better of two potential outcomes.

There had already been discontent in the stands, too, despite Leicester’s strong position in the table, with Maresca even threatening to leave if the murmurings of frustration and questioning of his team’s style continued during games.

“I arrived at this club to play with this idea,” he said after a 3-1 home win against Swansea City at the end of January. “The moment there is some doubt about the idea, the day after, I will leave. It’s so clear. No doubts.”

Enzo Maresca, Leicester City

Leicester’s previously stellar form waned in the latter stages of the season (George Wood/Getty Images)

How much all the off-field factors, the lack of additions in the winter window and the growing pressure internally and externally affected Leicester’s players is difficult to quantify, but the unstoppable juggernaut, typified in meme form as HMS P**s The League, began to slow dramatically.


To add to the seemingly increasing disconnect with some supporters — a legacy of the relegation season — fan groups protested and held a meeting with the club when Leicester announced a five per cent increase on their season tickets, as well as a new £25 charge to receive a physical season-ticket card rather than a digital version.

It was starting to look like mounting issues would become insurmountable and scupper Leicester’s promotion dream but, just when they needed it, Maresca’s side showed some grit to beat play-offs chasing West Bromwich Albion and then demolish Southampton 5-0.

“Everyone does care and everyone trusts each other,” Hamza Choudhury said after the 2-1 win over West Brom in late April, which followed a frank meeting between the players. “The lads came together and said, ‘Enough is enough. Now is the time to get over the line’. It probably refocused us and recentred us.”

Stephy Mavididi, Leicester

Leicester’s players celebrate their emphatic 5-0 win over Southampton (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

The celebrations following their emphatic 5-0 win over Southampton on Tuesday night, which was their biggest win of the season, didn’t feel premature. Three days later, Leeds’ thumping 4-0 defeat at Loftus Road confirmed promotion.

Leicester never expected to have to mount another promotion push. Their sights had been set much higher before their fall from grace.  If they had failed, the consequences could have been severe. Almost disastrous. Yet Maresca and his players  pumped the brakes and pulled Leicester back from the precipice.

“I reiterated it could be a special season to the players,” Coady says, when reminded of his pre-season prediction after the West Brom win earlier this month.

“I think a lot of people thought we were going to cruise to promotion because of where we were at Christmas-time and in February. It wasn’t going to be like that. I know from playing in this division, and getting out of this division before (with Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2017-18), it is really tough . You go through ups and downs all season.


“The key is to get together, fight for each other and find different ways to win. That is all we have spoken about.”

What awaits Leicester in the Premier League next season, time will tell. A points deduction is likely but they can do nothing about that now. Leicester must enjoy the moment and face that in August. At least they will know what they have to do then.

It has been a long, hard campaign but regardless of all the problems en route, it has been a successful one. Coady was right. It has been tough but it has been a season they won’t forget.

(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)