Championship winners Leicester – how Enzo Maresca guided Foxes to promotion

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image caption, Enzo Maresca made 37 appearances for Juventus ranging from 2000 to 2004

  • author, Guillem Balague
  • rollers, BBC Sports Columnist

In February, Leicester City lost 3-1 away to Leeds – reducing what had been a 17-point lead at the top of the Championship to just six.

Manager Enzo Maresca came into the changing room and said just one thing: “We will finish ahead of Leeds.”

A deliberately timed, measured message with the purpose of spreading confidence.

Three months later, after just one season in the Championship wilderness and in his first full campaign as a number one in senior football, Maresca and Leicester are back in the big time as champions.

But there are clouds on the horizon. Leicester’s fate could be set as much by decisions made off the field as those on it.

Maresca unimpressed by Leicester issues

The euphoria created by promotion cannot disguise the fact that not everything is well.

The news that Leicester faces potential financial fair play issues is something Maresca only became aware of after the start of the season.

It is disingenuous to imagine that the club knew nothing about the potential problems they could be facing and not informing their Italian manager earlier is not a good look.

This is evidenced by the highly unsatisfactory January transfer window involving two deals in particular. Cesare Casadei was very much part of Maresca’s plans after signing him on loan from Chelsea at the start of the season. Then Chelsea recalled him in the winter window.

Stefano Sensi, from Inter Milan, had come to the UK to help complete the deal once the two clubs had negotiated a fee for the player. Suddenly everything fell apart over concerns surrounding the club’s FFP standing.

To say Maresca was unimpressed on both occasions would be an understatement.

Surviving in the top flight will be hard enough even without the handicap of having to start next season with a points deduction.

While Leicester’s fortunes are not yet fully known, the one thing that is certain is that Maresca has no intention of changing his way of playing for the Premier League.

He also won’t want to make some of the mistakes Vincent Kompany made at Burnley, believing most of his promoted squad could keep them up. Changes to Leicester’s squad are required.

Maresca and his family are comfortable in Leicester. His children have stayed in England for most of their lives and any change of location always brings with it a degree of personal drama. But the Italian coach doesn’t see himself having a long career in management, so every step along the way has to be calculated with care.

It is logical that Maresca, with offers from European Cup winners and Spanish and Italian teams, and interest from English clubs, would consider all of his options after listening to the chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha during the squad break in Monaco on the Thai businessman’s yacht.

How did Maresca end up at Leicester City?

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image caption, Leicester chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha alongside manager Enzo Maresca

On 3 June, Maresca, as assistant to Pep Guardiola, helped Manchester City win the FA Cup against Manchester United.

The following day, he was speaking to Leicester’s owner about becoming head coach. He almost never made the meeting.

The 44-year-old agonized long and hard before attending the appointment, not because he didn’t want the job, but because he would miss the 10th birthday party of his son, Paolo.

If he was to choose a business appointment ahead of the celebration of the eldest of his four children, then he told himself it had better be worth it and he left a note on a board behind his desk in the training ground office saying as much.

It became a regular thought during the season. ‘It has to be worth it. It will be worth it.’

Chairman Srivaddhanaprabha said he wanted the team to play like Manchester City.

“Not possible,” Maresca told him. “Nobody has that level.”

He promised that although the team would dominate games, it would be offensive and brave. It was a way of playing that he fell in love with ever since losing to Guardiola’s Barcelona as a player for Sevilla.

Maresca left the city with the blessing of everyone. Guardiola had told him from the start he knew he was a number one. He was too capable and ambitious, to settle for being an assistant.

The advice he got from some of the City bosses was not to go to the Championship, it was too risky and demanding.

But Maresca, who had offers from Premier League clubs, wanted one with history and with the potential to re-establish themselves in the top tier. Leicester ticked all the boxes, despite the fact that anything less than returning to the Premier League would be deemed a failure.

On 16 June 2023, Maresca was appointed manager of Leicester, having signed a three-year contract with the newly-relegated club. He spent his first two months living at the club’s training base.

How did Maresca change the mentality at the club?

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image caption, Harry Winks, right, has made 10 appearances for England

At Leicester the morale was at rock bottom, following a campaign that saw the former champions relegated on the last day of the season.

In a pre-season friendly against Liverpool, despite losing 4-0, Maresca saw enough to tell him that he had the right players and spirit at the club to be able to mount a promotion campaign in the way he wanted.

Despite sharing a similar philosophy to Guardiola, his approach is different. The main difference is that Maresca allows a little bit more freedom in the final decision making of players. In training, the Italian created an atmosphere of learning and challenges, which the players appreciated.

Many who had thought of leaving asked to stay. Videos were sent to players’ phones to help them keep improving and impressing the new manager, while he mixed his natural empathy with high expectations.

There were certainly some players who shone like beacons.

Central defender Jannik Vestergaard was fundamental as he led by example, while the arrival of Harry Winks from Tottenham was also a game-changer.

Full back Ricardo Pereira has also been pivotal to Maresca’s plans, as has getting club legend Jamie Vardy fully on board.

While Vardy’s style has always focused on looking for the space with his blistering speed, Maresca needed him to backtrack and involve himself more in the play. The striker embraced it.

Former Argentina goalkeeper Willy Cabalero as assistant manager and Danny Walker as first team coach have the capacity to challenge the manager and have proven invaluable.

Meanwhile coach Marcos Alvarez is the glue that binds the squad together, with his suggestions for games at quiet times when away from home and his constant joking.

Javier Molina leads the group of game analysts that also had to adapt to the new manager and his demands. Goalkeeper coach Michele de Bernardin applies his modern methodology to fit the style required by Maresca.

Leicester’s league campaign opened with a 2-1 home win over Coventry City.

How to account for the bad patch in the last third of the season?

Persuading everyone at the club that a complete overhaul of the footballing ethos was required was always going to be a hard sell.

But no-one complained after 21 wins from their first 26 games.

Then, when fans saw what had been a huge lead whittled away, many began to question his approach with some even calling for his head.

Four defeats from six games between 17 February to 29 March turned what had been a two-horse race for promotion into a four-way battle with Ipswich Town, Leeds and Southampton.

Leicester had been top of the Championship since September 23 following a 1-0 win at home to Bristol City until a loss at Bristol City on March 29 saw them drop out of the automatic promotion places and into third place.

Maresca was never going to sacrifice his beliefs and principles though for what he always believed to be no more than a temporary loss of form.

The real worry would have been had his side stopped creating chances, which they never did.

Against Bristol City, Vardy squandered some great chances that could have secured the win. Maresca’s talk to his players after the game was simple. “How many goals has Jamie scored in his career? That’s football,” he told them.

It helps, of course, if you have the unquestioning support of those who hired you. As Leicester struggled with their form, Maresca was buoyed by a reassuring hug from his chairman who told him they were with him.

There has been a cultural friendly war going on in the stands of the King Power Stadium. At times fans demanded quicker approaches to attacking but Maresca and his players held their nerve and prevailed. Goals came, gap restored, title won.

Maresca’s achievements at the club and how he is perceived by his players is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they all descended on Maresca’s home – with four kids in bed – at 2am to celebrate with their manager following confirmation of their promotion.

The title was confirmed with a 3-0 victory at Preston. The away fans stand, more understanding and patient about the team’s style, rocked for a long time in north-west England after the game.

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