When Leicester City’s performances became stagnant at the start of the year under Claude Puel, there was a growing fear that all the progress made by the club during their miraculous 2015/16 triumph was set to go to waste. The team had no identity, no clear game plan and had lost the direction that took them to such heights beforehand.
It became clear that something had to be changed and, in late February, the club appointed Brendan Rodgers as manager. Fast forward seven months and, thanks to shrewd investment, faith in young talent and, most of all, the Northern Irishman’s admirable tactics and vision for how he wants his team to play, Leicester are a side who have not only become candidates for a top-four finish, but are now one of the favourites for it.
Brendan Rodgers Has Transformed Leicester City
After giving Leicester new energy with 17 points from a possible 27 towards the end of last season – a scenario that is now common with new managers at Premier League clubs – the real work began for Rodgers in the summer. It became clear that he wanted his side to be consistent, both in results and in the style of their play. Leicester did not leave Europe for their pre-season tour and instead focused on staying together as a group.
Rodgers has built a reputation as a manager who encourages his team to play with a fluid passing style that controls matches and it is evident that method has already been transferred onto the team. Leicester rank fourth when it comes to total passes (5862) in the Premier League this season with a passing accuracy of 81.8%. The Foxes have also been dispossessed 94 times – third only to Newcastle United and Liverpool, as well as placing fourth, once again, for average possession per match, 55.5%.
This Leicester side under Rodgers is different from Claudio Ranieri’s title-winning team. Not only are the Foxes better this season when it comes to number of passes, passing accuracy and possession, but this team feels more sustainable, built around a well-thought-out approach with players capable of adapting to several situations, from dominating matches to withstanding pressure and catching teams on the counter-attack.
Off the ball, Brendan Rodgers has implemented a pressing game where his side aims to disrupt opposition passing sequences and win the ball back quickly, therefore reducing the pressure on the defence and allowing more time on the ball for their influential playmakers. They average the most tackles per game in the league (22.5) and are conceding the fifth-fewest shots per match (10) this season.
Furthermore, the top two tacklers in the league, Wilfried Ndidi (53 successful tackles) and Ricardo Pereira (49) are both Leicester players, while the former also ranks first for interceptions (32). “We’ll work very hard on the training field,” said Rodgers after his appointment in February. “That’s what you have to suffer as a player — you’ve got to work hard so that when you come into the games, it becomes automated work.
“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. Supporters maybe have seen my teams at Swansea and at Liverpool and at Celtic and will recognise how intensely we try to press the game. That’s the base then to use your qualities technically, so that will be something we look to do over the course of time.”
As well as transferring his ideas into Leicester’s play, Rodgers has now assembled a squad capable of achieving consistent performances for a long period of time. Kasper Schmeichel has been reliable for a number of years, Ricardo Periera and Ben Chilwell have shone at full-back, Caglar Soyuncu has been a revelation at the centre of defence, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans are the key creative figures in midfield and Jamie Vardy is the league’s top scorer with ten goals.
The quality is there but the younger age bracket and willingness to learn are other strong features of this Leicester team under Rodgers. Soyuncu (23), Maddison (22), Tielemans (22), Ndidi (22), Chilwell (22) and Harvey Barnes (21) are all yet to hit their peak while the likes of Periera (26) and Ayoze Perez (26) are at an age where they are reaching their potential but still have plenty left to offer. “Thankfully, we have a squad here that constantly wants to improve,” Rodgers told Sky Sports. “They are players who are coachable and are hungry.”
The former Liverpool manager has also shown impressive tactical versatility when it comes to formations. More often than not, he has gone for a 4-1-4-1 formation, with an emphasis on quickly playing out from the back with sharp, crisp passing and using width to stretch opposing teams. On other occasions, however, he has preferred his side to sit slightly deeper in a 4-3-3 and use the man-oriented press, where each player tightly marks their opponent instead of multiple players moving towards the ball-carrier.
Such a system has allowed Leicester to produce impressive performances and results in tricky games this season, such as victories at home to Tottenham Hotspur, Bournemouth and Burnley, away to Sheffield United and Crystal Palace and a draw at Chelsea. Rodgers’ side even came within a whisker of a point at Anfield but for a dubious late penalty that was given against them. Then there was the devastating 9-0 thrashing of Southampton at St. Mary’s – a joint Premier League record for margin of victory.
Leicester face a fragile Arsenal side on Saturday and with a run of winnable games against Everton, Watford, Aston Villa and Norwich City coming thereafter, the Foxes could find themselves in a very strong position in the race for the top four. Brendan Rodgers has transformed this side in the space of seven months and, as his reputation increases by the week, there is a growing belief that he can keep Leicester near the top for a long time to come.