Sven, One Year On

In a guest post for Foxblogger, City fan Tom Arnold reviews a year in charge for Sven.

Sunday 3rd October 2010, and Sven-Goran Erikkson is appointed manager of Leicester City. Many City fans, already dizzy from the brief and disappointing reign of Paulo Sousa, were concerned. Eriksson had led a nomadic managerial lifestyle since his departure as England manager in 2006; a sole season at pre-oil millions Manchester City preceding disappointing spells as manager of the Mexico and Ivory Coast national teams, either side of a bizarre and tumultuous period as Director of Football at Notts County.

One year on from Erikkson’s whirlwind appointment, how can we assess his performance?

Football’s cynics will be surprised that the Swede remains at the club. A large number of City fans, and an even larger number of pundits, believed his appointment to be a combination of PR stunt and hubris on the part of the club’s wealthy new Thai owners, and the offer of yet another lucrative contract impossible for Erikkson to refuse. Erikkson has rubbished accusations of fickleness by asserting his commitment to the long-term aim of establishing Leicester back in the Premier League.

A further worry of many Leicester supporters was that the club could become a plaything for its new owners and their high-profile manager, entertaining a series of ageing stars in search of one last payday. Early rumours of interest in the likes of David Beckham and Michael Owen only added to these concerns. Eriksson has, however, performed shrewdly in the transfer market. Cursed with another man’s squad last season, he targeted loan signings, a mixture of proven but out-of-favour Premier League talent and young, up-and-coming prospects arriving from January onwards. Some of his signings were masterstrokes: Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Ben Mee and the classy Kyle Naughton establishing themselves as integrable members of the side in the second half of the 2010/11 season. Others disappointed: Eriksson’s infuriating shoehorning into the team of Chelsea’s Jeffrey Bruma an example of his occasionally stubborn approach.

Sven’s first season in charge could be well summarised by his own catchphrase, coined during his time in charge of England: “…first half good, second half not so good”. An encouraging start and an incredible run of form between January and February, masked the soft underbelly of a team that had not quite gelled – understandable given the huge turnover in players and large number of loan players in the team. Sven’s side fell away from the play-off places through March and April, the season effectively ended by a defeat at Nottingham Forest that encapsulated the contradictions and frustrations of his first season in charge; sporadically scintillating, often entertaining, consistently vulnerable.

In his first pre-season, Eriksson was offered a budget larger than any City manager since Peter Taylor. These are early days, but Eriksson, without being totally convincing in his transfer dealings, has already proven a more competent market operator than his predecessor as England manager. Experienced Championship campaigners such as Neil Danns, Kasper Schmeichel and David Nugent arrived, along with new club record signing Matt Mills at an Akinbiyi-esque price tag of £5m. Promising young right-back Lee Peltier, Liverpool’s Paul Konchesky, Swiss international Gelson Fernandes and Manchester City’s forgotten starlet Michael Johnson also signed, followed by the last-ditch transfer day deal poach of Jermaine Beckford which demonstrated Leicester’s new status as a second-tier financial powerhouse.

The feeling this term, ten games in, is that Sven’s Leicester are just getting into their stride. Brilliant in spells (against Brighton and last weekend’s 4-0 defeat of Derby), unlucky at times (Cardiff and Forest away) and plain dreadful at others (Reading and Bristol City at home), the fear, as throughout Eriksson’s last ten years, is that he doesn’t really have the kind of grand masterplan so craved for by fans. The type of football played at the King Power stadium under Sven is undoubtably more aesthetically pleasing than during Nigel Pearson’s time in charge, for all the former manager’s many qualities. There have, though, been nagging doubt’s about the current boss’s lack of a Plan B. Faced with a Bristol City side pressing high up the pitch, restricting City’s desired slow-moving, ball-retention game, Sven failed to adapt quickly enough. Drawing 1-1 with Barnsley at Oakwell, Eriksson seemed too content to settle for the point, waiting until the 85th minute to bring on his second substitute; Peltier for Konchesky – a full-back for a full-back. On the other hand, if his side play as fluently and confidently as they did against Derby, and Plan A will do just fine.

Recent weeks have demonstrated encouraging signs of a side becoming both more comfortable in itself and in the system they are being asked to play. Shorn of the restrictions of the unpopular 4-3-3/4-5-1 deployed for most of the early season and dumped after the dire first half at Oakwell, the likes of Peltier, King and Vassell have thrived, while four league clean sheets in a row – a first for City since the promotion season of 2002-03 – demonstrates the burgeoning partnership between Mills and Sol Bamba.

Strange as it may seem, a year into the job it feels we are only now getting to know the real Sven-Goran Eriksson. A man of few words (those spoken being considered and thoughtful – no Warnock-esque anti-referee tantrums here), he has been accused by some of being cold, distant, aloof. Conversely, he seems well-liked and, more importantly, respected by his players.

Ultimately, if Eriksson fails to secure promotion this season, he will be deemed to have failed and will, surely, lose his job. Given funds that other Championship managers can only dream of, Sven is expected to assemble a squad that can reach, and establish itself in, the promised land of the Premier League. After years of post-Adams mediocrity, relegation to the third tier for the first time and the Walkers/King Power playing host to some of the worst players in the club’s history (take a bow, Josh Low), the progress of the last three years, started by Nigel Pearson and continued by Eriksson and the Raksriaksorn family, is to be welcomed. Both parties are, nonetheless, playing a high-risk, high-investment game – Premier League or bust. Hopefully not literally, this time.

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