Getty Images

When Leicester City dropped out of the Premier League last summer it was obvious to all around the club what needed to be addressed if they were to get back up there at the first time of asking. Ever since Kasper Schmeichel's form had dulled, goalkeeper had been a problem position at the King Power Stadium. The harsh reality of 2022-23 is that they may well have survived with even a league-average shot-stopper between the posts.

The newly-appointed Enzo Maresca needed someone to bring authority to the position, a leader for his backline with the technical quality for a possession-heavy system that can go from back to front in the blink of an eye. What the Leicester boss got was, well, not a goalkeeper, to hear Mads Hermansen tell it.

"To be honest, I'm not sure I've always seen myself as a goalkeeper," he tells CBS Sports. "I've always seen myself as a footballer. 

"It's not about 'goalkeeping'. I never think of myself in that way, I'd always love to play outfield. Of course, I love being a goalkeeper but the other side of the game talks to me a lot, I would say. Maybe that also made me the goalkeeper I am today."

The goalkeeper he is might be pivotal in swinging the three-way battle for automatic promotion from the Championship in Leicester's favor. From his debut against Coventry City, Hermansen has proven himself to be the shot-stopper that supporters have been craving for years, more than that however, the 23-year-old has brought an impressive level of authority between the posts. It shines through when the ball is at his feet.

In 2024, most goalkeepers have accepted the evolve-or-die requirement that they must be able to receive the ball at their feet and play a pass on. Few, however, embrace the demand quite like Hermansen. His 1842 passes attempted this season is 12 percent more than any other goalkeeper in the Championship, where only one goalkeeper launches a lower proportion of his passes than the young Dane. Hermansen ranks in the top 10 players in any position across the Championship for progressive passing distance per 90 minutes.

He isn't just happy to get a pass back from the defenders, he craves possession. He wants you to press him and woe betide those that don't; give him the time to look up and the young Dane can spot the gaps in an opposing backline and have his forwards through on goal in a single pass.

"I love it," he says of the feeling that comes when an opposition forward is hurtling his way. "I love the pressure and I love to attract people to get close and then just pass it, pass it, then we're out and we're attacking the other end." 

As more and more opponents go man to man with Maresca's side, Hermansen is the free man. He sees it as nothing less than a responsibility to dictate Leicester's tempo, to stand firm when the opposition wave crashes on him.

When it backfires it tends to look pretty disastrous indeed. Take Blackburn's goal in a 4-1 defeat to Leicester early this season, one where Hermansen gave the ball straight to Lewis Travers on the edge of his box, the ball breaking for Sammie Szmodics to strike home from close range. Equally, would Leicester have found the space behind their hosts' backline, gaps from which Jamie Vardy and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall netted if they had not been able to draw Blackburn up the field?

"If you think of no risk football, then I will probably boot it and just get it up there," says Hermansen. "But we see it as an opportunity to play, when someone presses me it means that someone else is free. Then we have to find that open guy.

"If you really want to you can say that goalkeeping is about not making any mistakes. But for me, the goalkeeping game has just evolved so much that you need to be able to do so many different things. Of course, it was important to me when I arrived to Leicester to show that I'm good all around, that I can save and I can pass. In general, it's just important for me to show that calmness, coolness."

When mistakes do come along it helps Hermansen to no end to know Maresca's response is "last year with (Manchester) City, we conceded the same goal." It's going to happen again, Pep Guardiola's former assistant insisted, but Hermansen is also going to get what he terms the "solutions" to ensure such errors are not that frequent.

The youngster chose wisely in the summer, then, a pivotal moment as the then-Brondby number one plotted his first move away from Denmark. Vincent Kompany flew in from the Burnley dugout to watch Hermansen in action while scouts from a host of Premier League clubs including Fulham and Bournemouth had been assessing his potential. At a time when he was drawing comparisons with Ederson and Alisson in his homeland, it must have been hard to keep a cool head.

"This was my first transfer, all the practical things that needed to be done, everything like that was new for me, let alone being in talks with other clubs and finding out who's interested and who's really interested. That was difficult, I would say, to manage, but eventually, it just felt like a no-brainer as soon as Leicester came in. With Enzo Maresca, it felt like it was a great fit for me as a footballer and the club felt like a family club, which I've experienced it actually is.

"Nothing is guaranteed in football. Even though I was told that I could come in, fit in the team and maybe start playing in the start of the season, if I don't perform there's someone else in line. That's just football."

Fortunately, he started as he meant to go on. For all that's written above about his composure on the ball, Hermansen has been an outstanding goalkeeper for Leicester this season. Indeed according to Wyscout, he leads the division in goals prevented, conceding 5.5 fewer goals than the expected goals value of the shots he has received. His season began in style when he got a glove to a Haji Wright effort that had deflected wickedly off Callum Doyle; how different the campaign might have been if that had gone in and Leicester had thudded into the Championship with defeat to Coventry City.

His particular party piece is following up one brilliant save with another. Your own personal favorite may vary between the ludicrous double parry against Stoke, Good Friday miracles at Bristol City or the blocking of a penalty and two more efforts on the rebound back in his Brondby days. Even Hermansen himself can't really explain what is going on in those instances. He does not pay any particular extra attention to it in training sessions, he can't particularly explain the mechanics to it beyond being "quite fast" and blessed with decent "mobility."

Perhaps his absorption of other sports aids his cause. His girlfriend Sofie Rosenkilde played ice hockey, from that he picked up "one one-on-one blocking, positioning and using your defenders ... to screen the goalkeeper." From handball, "different figures" he could use to block the ball and a greater appreciation of the angles he needs to get in the way of goalbound shots. What neither can imbue in him is the swagger that is apparent, not only with the ball at his feet but when opposing forwards put the ball down 12 yards from his goals. Three of his last four penalties in regulation time have been saved while Hermansen also delivered for his Brondby side in a Europa Conference League triumph over Basel.

"I enjoy them," he says. "No one expects you to save it, when you do, everybody's happy. I try to have a tactic -- I'm not telling you what it is, I don't want to spoil what I'm doing -- but then I'll try to mix it up. I feel like I have a strong sense of intuition so I'm trying to go with that too."

Hermansen keeping up his strong form could be vital if Leicester are to emerge ahead of at least one of Leeds and Ipwich to secure a return to the Premier League. For most of this year, automatic promotion seemed academic for Maresca's side but a run of four defeats in seven games allowed the chasing pack right back into the race. Monday's win over Norwich City means that the equation is simple for the Foxes: win their remaining seven games and they are going up as champions.

"Of course, there was a big gap for us at some point but I think it's been good for the team to wake up a little bit and realize that nothing comes easy, especially not in this league. We still have to be focused, we still have to work hard every single day for the rest of the season to to be able to finish where we want to.

"There's no reason to think that we shouldn't go up anymore. For sure we have the abilities and we have great players, we have a great way of playing and we just have to finish it off."

On the evidence of this season, Hermansen certainly belongs in that list of great players. Should Leicester make it back to the promised land then one suspects he will relish the challenges posed by Premier League forwards just as he has everything else his early career has thrown at him.