As the Leicester City players saluted the 2,600 travelling fans in the South Stand of Stoke City’s bet365 Stadium, a banner was in view.
It read: “Playing football the Enzo way.”
The hardcore supporters who travel the country to follow ‘Citeh’ had sung the name of the Leicester manager throughout the dominant 5-0 win over Stoke which moved their team another step closer to an instant return to the Premier League.
It was their 23rd win from the season’s first 30 Championship games and they are 11 points clear of second-placed Southampton and 12 above Leeds United, who are in third, in the race for the two automatic promotion spots. Leicester have also scored 64 goals, nine more than the second tier’s next most prolific side, and conceded 23, the lowest tally in the division.
After so many shocking performances and capitulations last season as the club slid towards relegation, these are days to be enjoyed for those supporters who were bouncing and singing on the Stoke away end’s concourses before a ball had been kicked.
The win was the perfect end to a tough week for manager Enzo Maresca: his team earned three straight victories across the league and FA Cup in eight days, scoring 11 goals in the process while conceding once.
But despite this seemingly unrelenting march towards promotion, not every Leicester fan seems to be enjoying themselves.
In the 3-1 league win at home against Swansea City last Tuesday, some supporters expressed their frustration over their team’s slow build-up. Leicester had needed to be patient to kill off that game, which they led only 1-0 entering the final quarter, with Maresca saying afterwards that if there was any doubt about his ‘idea’ of how the team should play, then he would leave. Two days later, the transfer of 28-year-old Inter Milan midfielder Stefano Stensi collapsed, causing further exasperation.
Another banner in the away end at Stoke supported Maresca — but with a caveat.
This one read: “In Enzo we trust, Rudkin out” — a reference to the director of football Jon Rudkin, who is always the pantomime villain when something goes wrong at the club.
Any negativity at Leicester this season is baffling to those watching from the outside, envious at how the club has seamlessly recovered from relegation, regrouped and become reborn under summer appointment Maresca with a reshaped squad and new style of play.
There is an identity about Leicester now that wasn’t there last season, but some fans say the play isn’t very entertaining.
While it is a subjective debate, it takes two teams to make a thrilling game of football.
Leicester have found this season, especially at home, that sides set up to frustrate them, accepting they won’t have much possession and sitting deep, inviting Maresca’s side to break them down. Patience and strategy are required to achieve that, rather than gung-ho football.
As Maresca has repeatedly stated — and none more so than in a succinct YouTube masterclass with The Coaches’ Voice — his side look to create overloads in certain positions, especially in the midfield with the inside full-back, usually Ricardo Pereira.
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They move the ball to move the opposition, to create pockets of space in which the attacking midfielders can operate or get it wide to the wingers in one-on-one situations. Sometimes that invariably means playing backwards or sideways to produce those spaces.
Some sides look to press Leicester high, knowing they like to play out from the back and thinking the risk is worth the reward if they can turn possession over close to goal.
For Leicester to play through this press requires bravery and skill. And when they get through it, their attacks accelerate quickly — hence Maresca’s decision to use Patson Daka as his No 9, to complement the speed and counter-attacking abilities of Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, Stephy Mavididi, Abdul Fatawu and Kasey McAteer. It isn’t first-gear football, more like a drag race once they have played through the press.
Maresca, who has been developing his philosophy for 10 years as a coach, wants his side to play forward when they identify that space. As a result, he has been encouraging young centre-back Ben Nelson to be braver on the ball by making forward passes between the lines, just as Jannik Vestergaard does.
Before the Stoke game, Leicester had played 352 forward passes this season which bypassed opponents. That total was two more than Southampton, and more than all 20 clubs in the Premier League — the asterisk being the quality of opposition and that Premier League sides had played fewer games than their Championship counterparts. However, it shows that when a forward pass is on without the risk of a turnover, Leicester will play it.
This is still the first season of players getting to grips with Maresca’s methods; a dress rehearsal in many ways for what should come in the 2024-25 Premier League, to which his style of play may be better suited because opponents won’t come to the King Power Stadium to surrender the initiative and sit deep — certainly not the top teams.
It’s one of the reasons why away days in this season’s Championship have been so enjoyable.
It may not be every fan’s cup of tea and some may never buy into it — Maresca recently noted he used to hear moans and groans behind the dugout when he was assistant manager at Manchester City last season when they were marching towards the treble – but what Leicester are proving is that, whether it is entertaining or not, what can’t be debated is how effective it is.
It is winning football.
(Top photo: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)