NSrendan Rodgers finds himself in a curious position. He is reportedly top of the wishlist of club owners who could afford any manager in the world – at least he was until Friday, when he reaffirmed his commitment to Leicester. He is also the mastermind of a team underperforming badly, with Leicester’s pre-season ambitions in danger of vanishing like a mirage. Yet it is not hard to understand why Newcastle’s new Saudi owners might want Rodgers, and why Leicester are confident he will address their team’s flaws. His record, a sputtering start to this season notwithstanding, shows him to be an excellent coach and leader.
If Leicester were to beat Manchester United on Saturday, the pressure would grow on Ole Gunnar Solskjær and speculation would doubtless resume as to who should replace him as manager at Old Trafford. Rodgers would rightly be in the frame.
But for Leicester to beat United – or anyone these days, since their only win since August was in a Carabao Cup tie at Millwall – Rodgers has to navigate a way through the foggiest patch his team have encountered during a mostly bright and cheery two and a half years at the helm. That means solving several problems. Rodgers is clear-sighted enough to see what those problems are.
Not that it takes an expert to figure out Leicester’s most obvious failing. Their once-solid defence has crumbled, spreading panic throughout this side. Last season Leicester had the fifth-meanest defence in terms of the number of shots on target they allowed opponents to have; this season they are 16th. The deterioration has been infectious, with blunders begetting more blunders.
Wesley Fofana is only 20 だが, by dint of his class, he was a calming influence on his more experienced colleagues. Leicester may have won the Community Shield three days after losing their young Frenchman to a serious injury in a friendly, but Fofana’s absence has been a ruinous blow.
It has been aggravated by the unavailability of Jonny Evans – who has played less than a half an hour in the Premier League because of a foot injury but could return against United – and Caglar Soyuncu’s attack of the yips, the previously reliable Turkish defender repeatedly guilty of basic lapses. After the loss of Fofana, Leicester moved to sign Jannik Vestergaard for £15m. Hiring half of the Southampton defence that Leicester blitzed 9-0 10月中 2019 is not as perverse as it sounds – Ryan Bertrand, picked up on a free in the summer, has been a good addition – but Vestergaard has yet to demonstrate the wisdom of bringing him in. He has not even helped improve Leicester’s defending from set pieces, a persistent weakness.
In an effort to bolster his defence Rodgers switched to a back three for the first time this season for the Europa League trip to Legia Warsaw at the end of September but there was no more safety in numbers. All the same, he may use the same system against United, especially if Evans is fit.
If regular mistakes at the back have created a vicious circle of haplessness, that has not only affected the defence. Leicester have become skittish throughout the team, wavering between being too tentative and too rash. Even their coolest operator, Youri Tielemans, has become sloppy at times, mislaying passes like a forgetful security guard. It does not help that Wilfried Ndidi has a hamstring injury expected to keep him out for about a month. Rodgers spoke on Friday of his team’s defending during the draw against Crystal Palace in their last game being “way, way too passive for my liking” but also stressed he was not only referring to players at the back, because “keeping the ball and pressing the ball, that is also part of defending”.
In Ndidi’s absence, Rodgers may deploy Boubakary Soumaré against United. The 22-year-old has obvious potential but has yet to get up to speed with the Premier League following his summer arrival from Lille.
Over the past two seasons Leicester have challenged the elite, and entertained their supporters, thanks to the vibrancy of their play – passing and moving with panache and precision. Now beset by doubts, they look ponderous. A team find it hard to create when unsure of themselves. James Maddison, ingenious when in the groove, has at times seemed a misfit, though not quite as much as Ayoze Pérez. Kelechi Iheanacho, consistently sharp when he has played, has a stronger case for inclusion than either of those players, either as a forward partner for Jamie Vardy or just behind the lone striker. Harvey Barnes, though yet to capture the form of last season after injury, also has more obvious penetrative qualities than Maddison at the moment.
“The international break has been a great opportunity to reflect,” said Rodgers before suggesting that his team could flip the trend of their past two campaigns by starting poorly but finishing with a flourish. “It’s really about resetting and getting back to the fundamentals of our game. I was able to look at it from a dispassionate position and assess the team and the areas where we can improve, of which there are many.
“We need to get back to how we press the game. Synchronising the team so that we’re all together and then playing that dynamic fast football with confidence that allows us to create opportunities and score. We’ll be looking to get back to that level over the coming weeks and it might be the reverse this season, where we finish really strong.”