Friday, April 12, 2024

Patson Daka: ‘If I make it back to the Premier League, I’ll be a different player’

Patson Daka describes the rollercoaster ride that has been his last nine months at Leicester City as a “period of growth”.

He has maintained that trademark smile, despite going through one of the most challenging spells of his career.

When he joined Leicester from Red Bull Salzburg in 2021, it was to help the club challenge at the top of the Premier League and compete regularly in Europe, but his second campaign ended in relegation to the Championship, with Daka scoring just four times during a desperately disappointing season.

He faced a summer of uncertainty, with his future looking like it could have been away from King Power Stadium, only for a deal to take him to Bournemouth to collapse on the last day of the window.

By then, Enzo Maresca had arrived and with Daka expected to leave, the new manager began to develop plans without the 25-year-old, rotating Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho as his lone striker instead. In fact, by the start of December, Daka had played just one minute in the league.

Throughout that period, Daka continued to work and impress Maresca, and when injuries to Iheanacho and Vardy presented him with an opportunity of a first start at home to Plymouth Argyle on December 9, he was ready to take it.

He started the next six Championship games, the longest starting streak of any Leicester striker this season, and scored four goals before flying off to the Ivory Coast for the Africa Cup of Nations, where he carried Zambia’s hopes on his shoulders.

“We try to share the responsibility,” Daka says. “It’s not all on me, we share it as a group and we take responsibility, whatever happens.

Patson Daka’s AFCON disappointment could be Leicester’s gain

Zambia only scored two goals, with Daka scoring one and assisting the other when his quick throw-in allowed Kings Kangwa to loop a shot into an unguarded net from distance against DR Congo.

Yet that wasn’t enough to see a young, inexperienced Zambia through to the knockout stages as they were just edged out by eventual winners Ivory Coast as one of the best third-placed teams.

“Only one of the squad had played in the AFCON before,” Daka says. “It was our first experience, a great experience.

“The more we play together, the better because it’s a new team in a way. We have a different coach, different tactics and different philosophies. We’re trying to adapt to that but so far, I think we are heading in the right direction. Hopefully, the next time we go to the AFCON, it’s going be a different story.”

When he returned after Zambia’s exit, Daka picked up where he left off, scoring three more goals in three games.

One quality that Daka seems to exude is his mental strength, probably forged from his youth growing up in Kafue, where he had to deal with the trauma of losing his father in an accident when he was in his early teens and having to step up to support his family.

Sat in the media area at Leicester’s Seagrave training ground, Daka tells The Athletic how he always tried to find the positives in difficult situations, just like the time he spent out of the Leicester starting XI.

“There were mixed emotions but mostly positive,” he says. “It was not easy but I had great support from my family and friends and I just had to stay positive.

“I always try to be positive in every negative situation. At that moment, I was telling myself, ‘What if I am playing now and I go on without scoring without playing?’. Well, what would have happened?

“So maybe God was saving me for this time, so it was a time of growth, you know? It was a seed that was being planted and now it was just the time for it to blossom.”

The rise of Patson Daka: Booed by Zambia fans at 16, Leicester is ‘a match made in heaven’

A player who seems surplus to requirements for so long can be forgiven for feeling sorry for themselves and sulking, but Daka has been praised by Maresca and Zambia coach Avram Grant for his attitude during what was a challenging time.

Daka even understood why he wasn’t being called upon by Maresca.

“He was telling me it was not because I’m not training well, but the situation,” he says. “Kels (Iheanacho) was doing well, Vardy was doing well, and the team was doing well.

“If I was in their position and I was doing well and then someone comes and takes me out of the team I would be… no (not happy)! So it was just a matter of me supporting them, making sure they continued helping the team, because I knew that was how I could contribute to the team.

“It happened that my chance came and I had to step in and take it.”

Uncertainty over Daka’s future in the summer may have contributed to his initial absence from Maresca’s side but his profile may have not seemed an obvious fit for a possession-based system that requires just one striker who is adept at dropping deep and linking play.

Daka has always been a striker who has revelled in playing on the shoulder of the last defender and running the channels, using his electric pace, just like Vardy.

But since coming back into the fold, he is learning to adapt, just as his former team-mate at Salzburg, Erling Haaland, had to do when he joined Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, where Maresca developed his ‘idea’ as assistant manager.

“It’s a totally different philosophy,” Daka says. “This is the first time I am playing this type of football.

“I’m always used to running in behind or off the shoulder. It’s different but I need to adapt. I need to continue working. I’m getting there, slowly.

“It’s a great challenge. I like it.”

Daka has remained in contact with Haaland but while they have both learned to adapt to similar systems, he knows they are very different strikers.

“I haven’t really been watching him or studying him, but we’re still in touch,” he says. “We speak now and then, but we are different players with different attributes.

“I try to watch my games and study my own game. What is it that I’m doing? What is it that I’m supposed to do better?

“I get to speak to the coaches as well to try and help me to improve because the way we are playing, you find yourself in a similar position almost every time. So next time I’m in that position, what am I supposed to do?”

Having nearly left the club last summer, Daka is now focused on his Leicester future and on returning to the Premier League, where he feels he has unfinished business.

“This season is going very well for the club and it looks like they’re on track to go back to the Premier League,” Daka adds.

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves. There’s still a lot of games to be played.

“By the grace of God, I can (show more in the Premier League). I have gained experience and I am getting used to a different type of game. It’s fast and physical but now I think going into it (the Premier League), it would be a different experience.

“I would be a different player now.”

[The Athletic]

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