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Rodgers' reputation as a 'serial bottler' is rubbish: Leicester boss is one of the Premier League's top tacticians

08:00 IST 15/05/2021
Brendan Rodgers Jurgen Klopp Pep Guardiola GFX
The coach has become synonymous with late-season collapses but, in reality, the former Liverpool manager is one of the game's great over-achievers

As Leicester City stutter towards the finishing line there is a tendency to view their 2020-21 season as a mirror of the previous campaign; as part of a wider trend of near-misses for manager Brendan Rodgers. 

Like his Liverpool team in 2013-14, Rodgers doesn’t seem able to keep his players going for an entire 38-game season.

That narrative is false, and not only because Leicester have actually been fairly consistent throughout this season, winning roughly 17 points every 10 games.

Of course, last year, they fell off a cliff, taking just 23 points from their final 20 league matches, but to suggest Rodgers falls at the final hurdle is to misunderstand just how often he is over-achieving. 

Thin squads stretched to their limits inevitably begin to fray towards the end. That is not a character flaw but a testament to his success.

Most top-level managers have tactical characteristics that can be summed up in a few buzzwords – gegenpressing Jurgen Klopp, possession-obsessed Pep Guardiola - and the fact Rodgers does not perhaps leaves us grasping for a set of traits by which to define him, with 'serial bottler' filling the void.

Rodgers eludes simple tactical explanation because he is more flexible than most, adapting constantly to challenges and happily evolving his approach in order to keep the plates spinning. 

That we cannot summarise his work at Leicester in a few neat phrases speaks to his biggest strength as a tactician and a manager. 

The latest twist in Leicester’s season, a 2-1 victory over Manchester United that keeps their Champions League dream alive, was a perfect example of this flexibility. 

If we want to define Rodgers by anything it should be the speed with which he shakes things up. 

It takes courage to abandon a system as soon as problems bubble on the surface, as he did following the disastrous 4-2 defeat to Newcastle United in which the back three looked hopelessly open, allowing Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin to dominate. 

Rodgers immediately got rid of the shape, moving to a rare and unexpected 4-4-2 formation to grind out a result against a second-string United in midweek. 

The performance was hardly vintage but the manager deserves credit for reacting quickly to the tactical weakness of the 3-4-1-2 without Jonny Evans at the back.

It worked well, adding fresh intrigue and unpredictability to Leicester’s season-defining double-header against Chelsea. 

A few days ago it looked as though the Foxes’ new defensive issues would allow Timo Werner to slip in behind as Wilson did. All of a sudden, it would be naive to try to guess how Rodgers will approach the game.

The latest formation change follows numerous other examples this season. Leicester began the campaign in a 4-1-4-1, but when that started to look flat through the middle Rodgers switched to a 3-4-2-1, getting two playmakers behind Jamie Vardy. 

Once that became tired he flipped to a 4-2-3-1, albeit occasionally shifting mid-game to react to events, such as the move to a diamond 4-4-2 against Liverpool that turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 win. 

When James Maddison and Harvey Barnes got injured Rodgers came up with a 3-4-1-2 that relied less on a number ten and more on direct football through dual strikers, releasing Kelechi Iheanacho’s potential. 

And yet despite these changes it might not be enough to secure top four, such is the vast difference in resources between the big clubs and the rest, creating an uneven playing field in which Leicester must run their star players into the ground as the likes of Chelsea rotate. 

To be blunt, Leicester need four points from Chelsea and Tottenham and they look too exhausted to do it. 

Rodgers’ overachieving team is thin on numbers compared to their rivals, hence why Youri Tielemans – having played all but 62 minutes of their domestic season – has lost his verve; hence why Jamie Vardy – who has missed just four league games – is in need of a long rest.

Irrespective of how this season ends it is clear that Leicester require some reinforcements over the summer, not to improve the technical or tactical ability of the squad but to give Rodgers the option of rotating his best players out of the starting 11. 

The first priority should be finding a central midfielder of Tielemans’ ability to share the load, because this season Rodgers’ desire to play vertical football through the lines in explosive staccato rhythm asks too much of their midfield technician. 

Leicester also need a better backup to Wilfried Ndidi, whose absence always seems to lead to a downturn in form.

From a tactical perspective, Rodgers could do with pace on the flanks; a maverick dribbler who can disrupt the flow of a game and work deliberately in opposition to the fine-tuning of Leicester’s possession.

Someone like Allan Saint-Maximin would allow Leicester to change the narrative in matches that are drifting away from them, such as the recent 1-1 draw with Southampton or the damaging defeats to Fulham and Aston Villa earlier in the season.

And finally, Leicester need to confront a painful truth: 34-year-old Vardy has had his best years and needs to be replaced if the Foxes are to keep getting the best out of Iheanacho. 

The margins at the top are incredibly fine, as they always will be for outsiders punching above their weight. 

It is not a fault of Rodgers’ that Leicester are slowing down, and if they do lose the FA Cup final and fall out of the top four, we should avoid the knee-jerk reaction. 

This is still a team and a manager on the up.