Brendan Rodgers has Leicester third in the Premier League table. Early days, it’s true, but that record dates back well before the start of the season. It is seven months now since Rodgers was appointed at the King Power Stadium and only Liverpool and Manchester City have picked up more points in that time. Leicester’s fortunes have been transformed.
At a club accustomed to the extraordinary, ambition was stifled under predecessor Claude Puel. Direction lost. But Rodgers has restored belief and Leicester is alive with possibility once more. With the help of some shrewd and imaginative recruitment, an exciting young team has been constructed. Rodgers is proving the right man to unlock that talent.
Speaking to him last month, it was clear that this had been a big summer. Expectations had been clarified, work intensified and progress made. Rodgers had used the spring to assess his squad and now they were exploring different tactical ideas. Expanding their repertoire.
While others embarked on pre-season tours far from home, it was agreed with director of football Jon Rudkin that Leicester would not leave Europe.
“We spoke about staying as close to home as we could so that we could get as much work in as we could,” he told Sky Sports. “I have been involved in the commitments when you travel and there are a lot of commercial demands. Especially our first pre-season together, I felt it was going to be very important that we lock ourselves down in the training facility.”
The impact has been obvious. Leicester look like a Rodgers team now. Only last season’s top four have had more touches of the ball. As well as the results of a top team, they are playing the football of one too. Leicester rank among the top six for the number of pass sequences of 10 or more. Their title win was a spectacular one-off, but this feels sustainable.
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“I think it’s what you see building out from the back as, whether you see it as an opportunity or a risk,” he said recently. “It’s nothing new. It’s been that way for a long time. It depends how you are as a coach. There will be mistakes in it, but there is a great opportunity in the modern game, when you build your game from deeper, teams have a longer area to press.”
Their own pressing is making them more difficult opponents. “We have been very strong defensively,” says Rodgers. He’s right. Only two teams have faced fewer shots on target. When it comes to expected goals against, based on the quality of shots faced, they rank second. Remarkable given that they have already played four of last season’s top seven.
Delve deeper into the detail of their pressing and the change in approach is clear. The key metric is known as PPDA – opposition passes per defensive action in the attacking two thirds of the pitch. Leicester were among the bottom half on this metric last season, now they are second. This is now a team that wants to keep the ball – and then win it back quickly.
“Hopefully we can bring in a structure to how we play, which firstly means that you’ve got to defend well, so you’ve got to press the game,” he had said upon his arrival. “Supporters maybe have seen my teams at Swansea, Liverpool and Celtic and will recognise how intensely we try to press the game. That’s the base then to use your qualities technically.”
Leicester vs Newcastle
September 29, 2019, 4:00pm
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There is quality in this Leicester squad, there is no doubt about that. The roles of senior players Kasper Schmeichel, Jonny Evans and Jamie Vardy should not be underestimated – “they have been fantastic since I came in and very important in terms of the leadership in the dressing room” – but the bulk of the group with which Rodgers is working are young.
At Old Trafford two weeks ago, Ricardo Pereira, at 25, was the only other starter over the age of 23. Wilfred Ndidi has a pivotal role in midfield. James Maddison is the team’s playmaker. Supporters are enjoying the combination between Ben Chilwell and Harvey Barnes down the left flank. Caglar Soyuncu has replaced Harry Maguire and is already a huge fan favourite.
3:00 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leicester’s 2-1 win over Tottenham
All are ambitious. All have bought into the new ideas of the manager. Most importantly for Rodgers, all of them want to learn too. “Thankfully, we have a squad here that constantly wants to improve,” he told Sky Sports.
“They are players who are coachable and are hungry.”
That has been reflected in their impressive tactical flexibility so far this season. Against Wolves on the opening weekend, it was a 4-3-3 but “just a different shape at the front” with “the width then coming from the full-backs”. Maddison has played from the left at times, but then shown that he can adjust even within games – as he did against Tottenham.