Justin staying fit is vital for Leicester’s promotion push – he must be managed well
Enzo Maresca has warned on numerous occasions that he will have to utilise his entire squad to cope with the relentless demands of the Championship.
By and large, he had been true to his word, rotating his attacking players and on occasions resting his defenders too — all apart from one.
Callum Doyle, 19, started the first 10 games of the campaign until a knee injury picked up against Bristol City on September 23 sidelined him for what is expected to be between 12 and 15 weeks.
It was a body blow for Maresca.
“He is the only player that is left footed in defence,” the manager said. “We have many wingers, but in that position he was the only one.”
Doyle’s ability to pass quickly and crisply, and switch play with a long diagonal pass was a major feature of the opening games of the campaign.
Doyle in action for Leicester last month (Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)
Maresca is right — he doesn’t have anybody else in the squad who can play in a similar way, certainly after he let both left-footed full-backs Victor Kristiansen and Luke Thomas go out on loan this summer.
However, he does have James Justin — a player whose versatility and professionalism has impressed Maresca hugely.
Justin has endured two years of horrific luck with injuries and spent the entire summer at Seagrave, working to get fit for the new campaign.
He would often be the only player on the training ground, working with members of the strength and conditioning team to get back to peak condition after ACL and Achilles’ heel injuries that robbed him of two seasons of his career, just when he was forging a reputation for himself as one of the most promising full-backs in the Premier League.
England boss Gareth Southgate was one of his many admirers — with the 25-year-0ld making his international debut away against Hungary in June 2022 (which remains his only cap).
It has been a long road back for Justin, who has years ahead of him if he is managed well.
Maresca has done just that so far, easing Justin back into action this season. He had only started two Carabao Cup ties and one league game before Doyle’s injury, but he has now started back-to-back games for the first time since the start of last season, when he was still working his way back from his ACL. Justin’s 2022-23 campaign was then abruptly ended in November when he was injured against Newport County in the Carabao Cup.
The temptation now to play him in every game will be great. His versatility is tailor-made for Maresca’s fluid defensive system. He can play as a conventional left-back (despite being right footed he actually prefers to play off the left) and he also looks just as comfortable on the left side of a back three, the shape Leicester’s defence transforms into when they have possession.
His athleticism and pace is crucial too, as Leicester defend high up the pitch with as much as 50 metres in behind them at times.
He came through the academy at Luton Town and often played as a defensive midfielder too, making him more than competent on the ball, crucial to how Maresca wants his defenders to play.
Previously, during the warm-up when the back four were practising their shape they would simply have balls thrown at them to defend and clear as the others dropped to cover. Maresca’s warm-up sees the back four controlling the ball and playing it between themselves to simulate how they will play in the game.
Looking at Maresca’s options he does have defensive back-up now Conor Coady, who was so impressive on his debut at his boyhood club Liverpool last week, is fit and Harry Souttar is now back in the frame as well.
Jannik Vestergaard, who has marshaled the defence well in Coady’s absence, is left-footed but, while he has played on the left of a back three for Denmark before, the left-back role could expose his lack of pace.
After Leicester’s 4-1 win at Blackburn Rovers on Sunday, which equalled the club’s record of five consecutive league away wins and lifted them back to the top of the Championship, Maresca was full of praise for Justin, but admitted he may need to protect him.
“I always said, even when he wasn’t playing, he will be important because the season is long,” he says. “JJ today was unbelievable.
“But we have another game on Wednesday and Jannik (Vestergaard) is now out after picking up a fifth booking.
“We don’t have a natural left-footed player so we need to adapt, but at this moment with JJ we will see if we need to find some different solution.”
Justin ahead of Leicester’s victory at Blackburn on Sunday (Photo: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)
The only genuine solution to offer Justin some respite would be to switch inverted right-back Ricardo Pereira over to the left and bring either Coady or Souttar in on the right of the back three.
The games are coming thick and fast, with Preston North End and Stoke City visiting the King Power Stadium this week before the international break. Maresca may not have much choice but to play Justin and hope he has better luck than last season.
(Top photo: Matt McNulty/Getty Images)