Leicester’s immediate Premier League return has been built on Enzo Maresca’s unwavering ‘idea’

Hamza Choudhury and Enzo Maresca
Enzo Maresca has stuck to his guns and Hamza Choudhury's remarkable performance in defence against West Brom secured victory after back-to-back defeats - Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

Mission accomplished for Leicester City and Enzo Maresca and, while it was never admitted publicly, promotion was non-negotiable this season.

After leading the table for more than six months, Leicester have delivered ultra-consistency and, at times, breathtaking football to ensure their tour of the Championship was a brief stop.

At one point it seemed inevitable that Reading’s record points total of 106 would be eclipsed, but events of the last few months have provided some unwanted turbulence.

After being charged with breaching financial rules by the Premier League, Leicester have also been dragged into a bitter feud with the EFL. Six defeats in 10 matches over February and April also threatened to blow the season off course, with Maresca coming under severe scrutiny from supporters.

But, after all the drama of the past few weeks, Leicester have completed the job. Their 5-0 thrashing of Southampton on Tuesday night was arguably the best performance of the season and perfectly timed to calm any nerves. Their promotion was confirmed by Leeds’s defeat at Queen’s Park Rangers on Friday night.

Rival clubs will point to their huge budget, and players who stayed after relegation, insisting that missing out on promotion would have been a failure. Yet Maresca has still delivered in his first full season as a head coach, and his “idea” has ultimately worked.

“Straight back up Leicester City, playing football the Enzo way,” has been the chant from fans for most of the season.

Abdul Fatawu
Abdul Fatawu scored a hat-trick in the thrashing of Southampton - Stephen White/CameraSport via Getty Images

This is the story of how the Pep Guardiola disciple masterminded automatic promotion.

The seeds of Maresca’s “idea” were sewn in pre-season. The players stayed day and night at the training ground for the first full week of pre-season as the new coach outlined his playing philosophy.

One evening, there was an Argentinian themed barbeque attended by chairman Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha and his family. Maresca also whisked the players off to Sapori, an Italian restaurant in nearby Anstey that features in the Michelin Guide.

Reflecting on those initial weeks of adaptation, Maresca says: “It was about togetherness and team spirit.

“We will probably do the same again this summer. It didn’t matter if we were relegated or promoted, it was so important to spend time together.

“That is the moment when you can build something.”

From the first day of pre-season the players worked on ball control in tight spaces and were getting in tune with his tactics. Almost immediately, Ricardo Pereira was told he would be the full-back playing inside in midfield.

Maresca’s ‘idea’ revolves around total ball domination. It is a world of inverted full-backs, overloads and draining the opposition physically and mentally through possession. If an opponent defends with four, Leicester attack with five.

Some of the players were initially sceptical over whether it would all work. It was highly detailed and required patience.

Maresca is heavily involved with training, and insisted very early on that every pass has to be made to the correct foot. “If you pass me the ball, and I am right and the ball goes to the left, I need one more touch to bring it to the right foot. If it’s the wrong foot, I could lose the ball. It’s the small details but it saves so much time.”

Two summer signings were regarded as crucial to the plan. Harry Winks arrived from Tottenham for £10 million and has been Leicester’s “brain on the pitch”. Mads Hermansen, the goalkeeper, was handpicked by Maresca after he was presented with a list of options by recruitment chief Martyn Glover.

Hermansen is the Championship version of Manchester City’s Ederson, and utterly essential for Maresca’s style of play. Conor Coady remarked earlier in the season that the Dane is so comfortable with the ball that he could play centre-midfield.

Mads Hermansen
Mads Hermansen's distribution has been key to Maresca's strategy - Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

Another Glover pick, winger Abdul Fatawu, has impressed on loan from Sporting and scored a brilliant hat-trick in the Southampton demolition.

Maresca is entirely dedicated to his style of play and has frequently insisted he will never waver. He once memorably said “even if they come man to man in the toilet, I don’t care”, in response to teams’ attempts to stop them.

When it works, it can be devastating. In the 3-2 win over Millwall on Dec 13, Leicester had 78 per cent possession. Against Rotherham there were 54 passes before Chelsea loanee Cesare Casadei provided the final touch with a headed goal.

Leicester became the first ever Championship side to win 52 points after 21 games. The football was technically advanced and clinical.

Maresca regards the four defenders – usually Wout Faes, Jannik Vestergaard, Pereira and James Justin – and holding midfielder Winks as essential to his game-plan.

“If these five players are good, the team plays good,” he says. “The other five – the two wingers, Kiernan [Dewsbury-Hall], Dennis [Praet] and Jamie [Vardy] – allow you to win the game. If we do the process well with the back five, the team plays fantastic.”

Yet Maresca’s faith in his idea is arguably where the threat of the season unravelling started around late February.

Accusations of boring, slow football have not gone away, even when the team was winning every week. There are some fans still convinced that Maresca struggles to find a ‘Plan B’ and is stubborn, keeping faith with players who are underperforming.

Doubts over the players’ mental fragility surfaced after the poor run over February and April.

Maresca is not one for turning, but will surely have to modify his style of play in the Premier League.

Vincent Kompany employed a similar mindset at Burnley and has endured an often miserable season with 21 defeats and likely relegation.

There are also more serious issues ahead. Leicester are under threat of starting next season with a points deduction, after being charged with breaching Profitability and Sustainability Rules by the Premier League.

Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall
Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall has been City's creator-in-chief but may have to be sold before June 30 to satisfy PSR - Stephen White/CameraSport via Getty Images

It is understood that the proposed punishment could initially be in double figures, similar to Everton’s sanction last November.

Leicester have adopted a combative stance, even threatening to sue the Premier League and EFL, and that is unlikely to help their cause in mitigation and possible future appeals.

A total squad reset is also required. With the threat of further sanctions for PSR breaches next season, Leicester will be under pressure to raise money before June 30.

Dewsbury-Hall has interest from Brighton, Fulham and Brentford, and could be sold for around £30 million. Other players are likely to be sold if offers are acceptable.

Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi and Marc Albrighton are out of contract and unlikely to stay. Vardy and Vestergaard will have to accept big pay cuts to guarantee a new deal.

Funds will probably be restricted for new signings too. Maresca’s dream player is one in the mould of Ilkay Gundogan, someone he coached at Manchester City. The squad clearly needs reinforcements.

These are all issues to worry about down the line. Promotion was the only target – failure to do so could have had severe consequences for the short to mid-term.

Leicester are back at the first attempt, and despite the recent wobble, unquestionably deserve to be promoted. They have won 30 of their 44 games, and were league leaders for 25 weeks of the season in a crazy division. Maresca could still lead them to the title, and 100 points.

There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s promotion, Leicester are ready to face the music and dance.