Playmaker reconsiders the Watford coach's huge impact on Leicester's title

Is it time for a Nigel Pearson retrospective?

2020/01/07 21:10
By Connor Andrews

Looking back, it seems like most still haven’t quite digested what Leicester achieved in 2016. 

In a sport bustling with hyperbole, it’s often a little bit shocking when the 5000/1 title win is called as little as ‘a great achievement’ rather than ‘probably the biggest upset in the history of sport.’

Nearly four years on and no one has yet worked out quite why it happened. Incredible scouting, some great coaching, and enough team spirit to last a century. 

There was a multitude of reasons for their success, but one that goes unmentioned, aside from passing jokes, is what came before Claudio Ranieri’s appointment for the title winning season. 

Putting aside the frankly ridiculous fact that Ranieri’s previous game in management was defeat as Greece boss to the ultimate minnows, The Faroe Islands, there was little doubt that Leicester were on an upward trajectory under their previous coach.

©Getty / Martin Rickett - PA Images

Nigel Pearson’s miracle run as Leicester coach that moved his side out of the Premier League’s relegation zone and to safety began in April 2015, where, after 19 defeats and just four wins in their opening 30 games, the Foxes were dead and buried on 19 points with eight games to play, in last place, seven points off safety.

Seven wins, one draw, and one loss followed, lifting Leicester all the way up to a comfortable 14th place finish. Pearson showed some solid tactical nous, switching to a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2, which, at the time, wasn’t such a common tactical tweak for Premier League sides, particularly those in the bottom half. After toiling with a back five and 4-4-2 the Leicester team we now remember so fondly started to come to fruition.

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In that eight game spell Jame Vardy was first choice ahead of David Nugent and Leonardo Ulloa, often with the latter alongside him, Riyad Mahrez transformed from impact sub to number 10, and Danny Drinkwater began starting regularly for the first time.

Their back three of Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Marcin Wasilewski bullied forwards and laid the foundations for their side to attack, and in doing so, they also laid the foundations for Ranieri’s title run.

The team changed, the style didn’t drastically, Ranieri relied on the big strong centre backs as his bedrock, whilst forcing teams out wide where they had to rely on crosses into the box, an area Leicester would always dominate and had begun to under Pearson.

The extraordinary performances from Vardy, Mahrez, and new signing N’Golo Kante were undoubtedly one of the key reasons for Leicester’s title win, and Ranieri deserves all the credit in the world for making them three of the best players in the league.


But the trend was set, Leicester went from the third most league counter attacking goals the season before to the second most during the title win. The only drastic changes to the regular starting line-up came in the form of Danny Simpson, Christian Fuchs and Kante himself.

Leicester also went from the second best side in the league in terms of discipline to the third best, while they remained the third worst possession side in the division dropping from a 44.8% average to 44.7%.

It goes even further too, the fourth best side in the league for aerials won was Leicester under Pearson, the following season the fourth best side were Leicester under Ranieri, and even more shockingly, their passing success somehow got worse under the Italian, dropping from 71.1% to 70.5% making them the second worst side in the league, dropping from fourth.

They even went from the second least offsides per game in 2014/15 to, have you guessed it, the second least offsides in 2015/16. All the clues that Leicester’s title winning style of play had already been determined in a large part by Pearson the previous season are backed up massively by the statistics.

While it’s hard to determine how much of Leicester’s success can be attributed to Nigel Pearson, it’s certainly more than many gave him credit for when turning their nose up to Watford’s appointment of the Englishman at the start of December.

Since then only Liverpool and Manchester City have picked up more points than Watford’s 10 and it begs the question, why did it take so long for him to get another job?

The racist incident with Pearson’s son certainly left a stain, as did his completely bizarre throttling of Crystal Palace’s Jame McArthur during a game in 2015. Then there’s ‘ostrich’ incident with a local journalist, while often joked about, was by all accounts by those in the room, extremely uncomfortable and tantamount to bullying.

©Getty / Matthew Lewis

And while discussing off-field issues it’s worth remembering Pearson went out of his way to take action against former Leicester defender Wayne Brown who had publicly stated his support for the far-right British National Party.

But, to have had just an incredibly brief spell at Derby since, and time at OH Leuven in Belgium, suggests the damage was done and time was served, and now over four years later, Pearson finally gets his second chance at the top table.

Right now, Watford are certainly reaping the benefits of taking a gamble for one of football’s forgotten men, but looking back at his impact on probably the biggest upset in the history of sport, it’s hard to understand why it took so long.

©Getty / Richard Heathcote

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