PARIS (AP) — While his former club Leicester flies high in the Premier League, coach Claude Puel is turning Saint-Etienne's fortunes around in his quiet and determined way.
Saint-Etienne was rooted in 19th place in the French league when he took charge a little more than one month ago, and since then the club is unbeaten and up to eighth spot ahead of Sunday's trip to second-place Nantes.
Puel quickly got the disgruntled fans on his side with a 1-0 home win against bitter local rival Lyon. The leaky defense has been tightened up with three clean sheets in four league games, and there is a steelier streak in the side.
"What no one can reproach us for is our character, it's good to see there's so much heart in this squad," Puel said. "The players are responding well."
Puel was a gritty and hard-working central midfielder who played 600 games for Monaco. The 58-year-old Frenchman's disciplinarian approach spilled over into his coaching with Lille, Lyon — where he remains the only coach to have guided the club to the Champions League semifinals — and Nice.
As a fitness fanatic he would actively participate in training sessions well into his 50s, which was not always well received by Lyon's players. After a successful spell at Nice, where he re-launched the playing career of skillful winger Hatem Ben Arfa, he tried his luck in England at Southampton and led the club to the League Cup final.
But his tenure in England was mired by back-to-back sackings, first by Southampton. Despite the club finishing in a respectful eighth place in the Premier League and being unlucky in losing the League Cup final 3-2 to Manchester United, his style of play was deemed to be too defensive.
He then took over at Leicester, which had won the 2016 league title and where demands were high.
Puel experienced similar reproaches because fans wanted a more flamboyant playing style than he could deliver. He was fired on Feb. 24 after a run of six losses in seven games, including an embarrassing FA Cup exit and with the team eight points above the Premier League's relegation zone.
Remembering Puel's time in charge, Leicester striker Jamie Vardy felt the Frenchman's approach was unsuitable.
"We got on well but I had the impression the training sessions were too slow, which made it difficult for us to be fast and aggressive during matches," Vardy said in an interview with French sports daily L'Equipe in September. "It's like we were preparing for a marathon, and on the day of the match we were asked to run the 100 meters."
He was replaced by Brendan Rodgers, who left Scottish champion Celtic and has guided Leicester up to third place this season. This season his side has netted 27 goals in 11 league games, which is more than any other side except Manchester City, and Vardy is the league's top scorer with 10 goals.
So perhaps the softly-spoken Puel's rigid methods were simply not suited to the dynamic demands of the Premier League.
Yet he has a stubborn belief in his principles, and they appear to be working once again at Saint-Etienne.
"His methods will pay off," 18-year-old defender William Saliba said. "He gives a lot of advice, particularly to the young players."
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