Leicester City: Willie Kirk’s high-flying side ‘not so little any more’

2 November 2023 0 By Total Football News

Players of Leicester City celebrate after Aileen Whelan (hidden) of Leicester City scoresLeicester are fifth in the WSL after four matches

Last season Leicester City lost their opening nine matches, entered the winter break without a point to their name and found themselves deep in a relegation battle.

Four games into the 2023-24 campaign and the Foxes have picked up seven points – a milestone they didn’t reach until their 14th game last season.

They’re fifth in the Women’s Super League, above the likes of Arsenal and Aston Villa, with their only defeat coming against top-of-the-table Manchester City.

BBC Sport takes a look at the reasons behind Leicester’s incredible turnaround.

‘A fantastic manager’

The most obvious change from the start of last season to now is Willie Kirk.

The Scotsman was already at the club as director of women’s football, but he was named head coach when Lydia Bedford stepped down six games into the season in November.

Leicester finally picked up their first win of the 2022-23 season in January and added a further 13 points under Kirk to put a five-point gap between themselves and Reading, who were relegated to the Women’s Championship.

“You’ve got to give credit to Willie Kirk. He has really turned that team around,” former Tottenham captain Jenna Schillaci told the Football Daily podcast.

Lydia Bedford: Games won - 4, Games lost - 15, Points per game - 0.65. Willie Kirk - Games won - 7, Games lost - 11, Points per game - 1.15.

The Foxes’ last game against Manchester City – a 1-0 defeat – marked Kirk’s 20th WSL match in charge.

While 23 points from 20 games might not seem like much, it’s considerably more than Bedford’s 13 from her first 20 at the helm.

“He’s always had an identity, Willie Kirk, and he is a fantastic manager,” ex-England midfielder Fara Williams said on the Women’s Football Show after Leicester’s 0-0 draw against Manchester United.

The 45-year-old, who had head coach spells at Bristol City and Everton before joining Leicester, has prioritised an aggressive, possession-based identity with the Foxes.

Former England and West Ham defender Gilly Flaherty added: “Since Willie Kirk came in, Leicester have always defended really well and that’s what he has done – he got them organised, he got them compact and he got them putting their bodies on the line.”

‘A lot more character’

Judging by Leicester’s quick start to this season, Kirk has been able to make the most of the summer transfer window and a full pre-season with his squad.

While they may have lost the services of full-back Ashleigh Plumptre, who moved to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad after an impressive Women’s World Cup with Nigeria, the Foxes’ summer recruitment seems to be paying off already.

Kirk added seven new players to his squad as well as making Janina Leitzig and Courtney Nevin’s loan moves permanent.

Leitzig’s impressive form from last season has continued with the German shot-stopper making more saves (19) than any other goalkeeper in the league so far this season.

Former Brighton defender Fern Whelan said: “She [Leitzig] really rallies the team and that gives you massive amount of confidence knowing you’ve got someone behind you who’s going to keep you in the game at the vital moments.”

Lena Petermann, Aimee Palmer and Jutta RantalaSummer signings Lena Petermann, Aimee Palmer and Jutta Rantala have each scored two goals so far this season

And there’s been success for summer signings at the other end of the pitch too.

In Leicester’s first game of the season – a 4-2 win over Bristol City – all four goals came from summer signings, with Jutta Rantala netting two, while Aimee Palmer and Lena Petermann adding the rest.

“They’ve got a lot more character within the team and they’ve signed players like Petermann who can put the ball in the back of the net. They will be in games and know they will get one or two opportunities, and they’ll score the goals,” former Liverpool striker Natasha Dowie said.

Flaherty added: “What they lacked last year was and out and out goalscorer. They created chances but they didn’t have that finished product. Now he seems to have got a good blend in the whole team.”

‘No longer the team fighting to stay up’

Aileen Whelan of Leicester City celebrates with teammatesLeicester City lost by an aggregate score of 31-1 to the top four teams – Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City – in the WSL last season

It’s not just Leicester’s results that have been impressive so far this season, it’s the way in which they have played against ‘top four’ teams.

Not many would have expected Manchester United – the WSL’s second-best team last season – to settle for a draw with Kirk’s side.

Even their 1-0 victory over Everton, who finished sixth with almost twice as many points as Leicester last season, could be considered a surprise result.

“[Leicester] have had a really strong start against teams they wouldn’t normally pick points up against,” Williams said.

“They put Manchester Untied under a lot of pressure and performed really well. They are going to be a lot higher up the table than people predicted at the start of the season.”

Former England forward Jodie Taylor said: “Leicester are no longer the team at the bottom fighting to stay up.”

When Leicester’s unbeaten run came to an end against Manchester City, there were still promising signs for the Foxes, with Kirk saying afterwards his players’ “disappointment” showed “how far we have travelled on this journey so far”.

“The fact Man City took the ball into the corner to run time down when they could is a compliment to us. I don’t think little Leicester are so little any more. We have made a bit of a statement in this opening four games,” Kirk added.

“I don’t think you will see the best of us until the second half of the season, so the fact we have seven points, we can be happy and there’s a lot more to come from this team.”