Could Rodgers-to-Man City rumours spell the end of a Leicester project already on the wane?
It’s never a good sign when your manager is among the favourites to jump ship for another Premier League club. It’s even more ominous when he reportedly isn’t interested because he’s holding out for a better offer.
According to the Daily Mail, Brendan Rodgers expects to be high on the shortlist for the Manchester City job if it comes up in the summer of 2023, which is a potentially explosive story inside Leicester City. It is the sort of rumour that could undermine a project that already looks to be on the wane.
Where is there left for Leicester to go? Missing out on the Champions League on the final day in successive seasons must take a huge emotional – and existential – toll, especially with a ‘Big Four’ having been firmly re-established over the summer.
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Their FA Cup win in May felt like the pinnacle and if there are no mountains left to climb, it would hardly be surprising if Rodgers is thinking about his next move.
However, at Premier League level, that fractional loss of motivation, likely felt by the players too, is often the difference between success and failure.
Leicester are certainly badly out of sorts right now: 13th in the table, without a win in four, and closer in points to the bottom three than the top six.
So, here’s what’s gone wrong in 2021-22, and how Rodgers can start to fix it...
Injuries and poor signings have caused a leaky defence
Rodgers has had to cope with injuries to Wesley Fofana, Jonny Evans, and James Justin, leading to a central defensive partnership of Caglar Soyuncu and Jannick Vestergaard – which is just too immobile for Leicester’s hard-pressing and fluid game.
Vestergaard was a strange signing. He lacks the agility required to help the Foxes build from the back or close down the opposition successfully, which is why the team are conceding more shots (14.28 per game) than any other team in the division, when last year they conceded the fourth fewest (8.22 per game).
Worse still, they’ve made four errors leading to shots this season already, having made just nine in the whole of last term.
Soyuncu and Vestergaard are perhaps too similar to play together, and along with a difficult settling-in period for midfielder Boubakary Soumare, it appears to be badly impacting Leicester’s capacity to press high and play their confrontational football.
Their PPDA is up from the sixth-lowest last year (11.99) to the fifth-highest (14.31), while Leicester’s interception rate is down from 11.53pg to 9.57pg, their possessions won in the final third having dropped from 4.29pg to 3.14pg, and their foul count from 10.87 to 8.29.
This paints a picture of a team looking leggy; disjointed defensively through a mix of ill-fitting defensive components and a general psychological malaise.
Formation switch away from 3-5-2 is hurting Leicester
The best fix for this problem would be switching to a 3-5-2, the system that worked so well for Leicester through large portions of last season but which has been abandoned this year due to those defensive injuries.
The 1-0 defeat at Legia Warszawa, in which the system came back and Daniel Amartey played poorly in the back three, gives weight to Rodgers’ reluctancy. Nevertheless, it must be reinstated, and not only because a third central defender can help make up for the difficulties with Soyuncu and Vestergaard.
Kelechi Iheanacho and Jamie Vardy have started together just once in the Premier League this season, in a 4-4-2 formation in the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace last time out. That game showed Rodgers is trying to work out how to fit them both in.
It was clear evidence that a flat 4-4-2 does not provide the angles to get Leicester out of their dull sideways possession (more on that below), but with both strikers on the scoresheet in the first half, it also screamed at Rodgers that he simply has to return to a 3-5-2.
Iheanacho and Vardy have scored 33 goals in the last 32 Premier League games in which they have started together. The former’s ability to drop deep and weave play together and the latter’s runs on the shoulder make for a devastating partnership, and as Vardy begins to slow down, he increasingly needs close support around the penalty area.
Moving to a 3-5-2 is an easy solution, and one that should also help solve their problems in defence and in building attacks.
Sideways possession taking hold as Barnes and Maddison struggle
Linked to all of these problems, and arguably more of a symptom than a cause, is the downturn in Leicester’s ability to progress the ball through the lines in the build-up phase.
The sharp verticality we are used to seeing from Rodgers – sudden changes of momentum that cut through the half-spaces – have disappeared as James Maddison and Harvey Barnes shrink.
Neither player has started the campaign well. Taking their stats together, their key passes per 90 are down from 2.6 to 1.7 per game and their dribbles from 2.5 to 1.9 per game.
Most importantly, Barnes’ single assist against Crystal Palace is the only Premier League goal contribution either player has made in 2021-22.
The football looks passive, with far too few options in the opposition half for quick progressive passes and far too much shuffling of the ball in a U-shape around the back.
Again, moving to 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 can help. The strike partnership allows Leicester to press from the front, opening up counter-pressing attacking opportunities such as those that led to both goals against Palace.
It also means dropping one of Barnes or Maddison and simplifying the role of the other, who from a central position has two runners in Vardy and Iheanacho to find.
This weekend's game against Manchester United is the perfect time to make the switch. Should Leicester sit deeper and look to absorb pressure – as they did relatively well in the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City – then a back three ought to be able to keep Cristiano Ronaldo quiet, given how difficult Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team find building through a stubborn defensive shell.
On the break, Vardy and Iheanacho can provide a double threat (linked by Maddison in the hole) against a United defence missing both Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane through injury. A counter-attacking two-on-two versus Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof would give Leicester a huge advantage.
Leicester need a shake-up and the solution is to revert to the system that was so successful last year. Perhaps that will be enough to kickstart their season.
However, following the emergence of the Man City rumour, and with Wilfried Ndidi now out for several weeks, it seems just as likely we have already witnessed the high point of Rodgers' Leicester and that things are likely to get worse before they get better.