Brendan Rodgers fighting against Leicester’s boom then bust cycle

The pressure is mounting on Brendan Rodgers but Leicester’s recent history points to problems with a comfort zone that persists regardless of manager

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Friday 18 February 2022 12:19
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<p>The Leicester boss has identified ‘anxiety’ around defending set-pieces </p>

The Leicester boss has identified ‘anxiety’ around defending set-pieces

Perhaps we should have all forecast this climate; cloudy with high probability of non-performance pain.

Brendan Rodgers certainly ought to have known it was coming. Leicester City are, after all, rooted to their script, albeit with a death by a thousand set-piece cuts sub-plot.

The over-achievers to so over it. A 5,000-1 miracle to relegation-candidate misery. FA Cup winners to washed out by Nottingham Forest. On it goes...

“Foxes Never Quit”, but a notes check will suggest they sure do take it easy after tasting glory. It was five years ago this month that Leicester, sitting a point above the drop zone, sacked Claudio Ranieri.

That move came a mere 298 days after an improbable title triumph, the type of which we may never see again due to the financial disparity shaping the game. The Italian had seen the designs for disaster from the start of pre-season and tried to publicly address it at every juncture.

“I did not see the same mentality together,” Ranieri would analyse, admitting his players had become too attached to what they had done, rather than focus on what they needed to do.

“Forget what we achieved, I want more and this is not the maximum.”

In the early months of 2016/17, Ranieri’s soundbites were an unsuccessful rinse-and-repeat plea to shake off the comforts of success and return to being “soldiers that want to fight”.

Leicester’s players turned up and turned it on in the Champions League though, where they reached the quarter-finals with Craig Shakespeare at the helm. They were, as one club employee framed it at the time, “seduced by the idea of being a fairytale again” and the league had become “chopped liver”.

Fast forward and Claude Puel would arrive to steer Leicester away from third-last in the division to ninth in the table, but the dressing room soon divorced itself from his tactics and approach.

The do-well-then-don’t circle has become life; ingrained in the club’s DNA.

Given recent history, there can be little shock that vanquishers of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea in last season’s FA Cup final are floundering in the bottom half of the top flight, winless in four.

This is not to absolve Rodgers of their current malaise. He has been unable to cure their cornervirus, with Leicester conceding 10 goals from them. Having switched from zonal marking to a man-to-man defensive system on dead balls in December, the team remains incapable of doing the basics – like authoritatively heading away danger.

Leicester have let in 39 goals in their last 19 games, 18 of which have materialised from set-pieces. Conceding from this route has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the bad news for the manager is that there has been nothing significant to suggest there is a determination to end the trend. Regardless of what he has tried to do – like the addition of extra height via Jannik Vestergaard – to contend with them, Leicester have still been defeatist.

“Defending corners is about organisation, but it’s primarily about wanting to put your head on it, that’s the reality of defending,” Rodgers said.

“You can go zonal, you can block, you can go man-to-man. In defending a corner, you have to have that will to head it. If not, you’ll suffer, and that’s unfortunately what has happened to us too often this season.”

Rodgers circled the “anxiety” around dead-ball situations and the mentality seems more of an issue than fundamental structural flaws in the set-up – a point echoed by Jamie Carragher during his punditry.

Leicester’s problems stretch far deeper than their inability to erase that flaw. They are a well-run club, with excellent owners and a smart recruitment policy, but at heart they are unsure of what the standard is.

The high-definition picture is perhaps the state of the game as a whole which gives rise to these scenarios, but Leicester need to have more control and stability in terms over who and what they are.

They have flirted with Champions League qualification against wage-bill convention, but have also danced with relegation danger. They can lift the FA Cup but also get laced 4-1 by Forest in the fourth round of the tournament.

There is a juxtaposition at work at Leicester: gold like Riyad Mahrez who departs to feature in the Champions League regularly and win trophies as a habit – Youri Tielemans is next out the door – and a stasis that is propped up by the odd success.

Leicester’s Youri Tielemans has excelled under Brendan Rodgers (Mike Egerton/PA)

Rodgers hinted at the latter when he said the bulk of the squad had “grown in terms of conditions in their life, better contracts, because of what we’ve been able to do”. What lurks between those lines colours the same theme Ranieri spoke of.

The current manager has proposed a refresh at Leicester, and while there will be the obvious snipes suggesting the Northern Irishman is trying to save his own skin, it is a necessary step whether he’ll remain in the dugout or not.

“The team needs that healthy shake-up,” he told Sky Sports. “I believe that when I came into here there was a group of players who were hungry and wanted to prove themselves. We’ve lost two of those in Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell but the team have continued to progress.

“From that point, we’ve won the FA Cup and the players are now in better conditions in their lives which is great. They deserve that, but you’ve got to keep improving.

“You’ve got to keep developing but we’ve not been able to freshen up the team. We’ve improved the squad, there’s no doubt about that, but we have to improve the team.

“Whether that’s spending more money to get a different level of player in or bringing in a hungry player who wants to prove a point. It’s probably a mixture of both really.”

Moreover, the blend will have to prompt a reconditioning of attitude if Leicester are to buck their boom-then-bust cycle.

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