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Is Brendan Rodgers Finding Yet Another Solution at Leicester?
He’s always improvising a new way of doing it.
I sometimes wonder if our perceptions of Brendan Rodgers are stuck eight or nine years in the past.
If you’re not an avid follower of what is now called the EFL, the first time you really took notice of the Northern Irishman was probably when Swansea City were promoted to the Premier League. This was 2011/12 and football was a slightly different sport. Pep Guardiola was still managing his era-defying Barcelona side while half that team were also taking international football by storm with Spain. Everyone had been won over: possession football was the way to go. Passing, control, tiki-taka.
And there plucky little Swansea were, dominating the ball in most games even against top sides. They had such an ability to just recycle the ball through midfield, and even if they lacked the quality to really create chances that way (this was, after all, a newly promoted side), it was still damned effective at controlling games. "When you’ve got the ball 65-70 percent of the time, it’s a football death for the other team”, he said, in that way he has that you can’t help chuckling at. “It’s death by football. You just suck the life out of them”.
One game in that terrific season stood out as the best for him.
I suppose in terms of performance the highlight has to be beating the [soon to be] champions, Man City”, he claimed towards the end of the campaign. “To actually dominate the game as well — we controlled possession, kept passing and kept the confidence and then, eventually, we were able to get the breakthrough. So in terms of where they're at and where we're at it was a defining moment.”
Fast forward to this season and Rodgers had another defining moment defeating Manchester City. It certainly has to go down as one of the best performances Leicester have produced under his reign. But this time, he didn’t control possession at all, mustering just 30% of it. Everything that defined his Swansea side had completely disappeared. Except the result.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s journey back.
Rodgers’ excellent work in South Wales was never likely to go unnoticed, but even he probably didn’t expect to be managing a club like Liverpool after one season in the big time. The Reds’ owners Fenway Sports Group, a little more wide eyed when it came to football than the ruthless operators they are today, had been wowed by the Northern Irishman. As my dad has always been fond of telling me, you can be anyone in the interview. Rodgers was the Ulster Johan Cruyff in his job interview at Liverpool, blowing everyone away with his ideas about progressive football. This, he was very clear, was going to be everything football was supposed to be about in 2012: passing, pressing, possession. Tiki-taka.
It wasn’t very good. Part of that was about the players he had, with the club really botching the summer transfer window. But Liverpool weren’t suited to controlling games like this at all. The January signings of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho really made his mind up: counter attack. Just play on the break at high speed and you’ll kill them.
Everyone knows what happens next. Rodgers produced a very exciting, very successful team that looked all set to win the Premier League title, then I’m fuzzy on what happened next as I seem to have repressed those memories. But Rodgers had delivered the best team of his career doing the exact opposite of what he made his name on. It also illustrated how flexible the idea of “good” football is. Most everyone agreed Liverpool were entertaining to watch despite not remotely following a juego de posición model.
The following season, as everyone knows, saw the sale of Suarez. But what’s less remembered is how Sturridge’s injury woes were almost as damaging. Liverpool suddenly couldn’t counter at pace because they didn’t have any in the side. The defensive woes meanwhile that cost the title last time had only grown. Another thing forgotten is that Rodgers did actually find an answer to this. He moved to a 3-4-3 shape (nearly two years before Antonio Conte “invented” it at Chelsea) and put together a very solid string of results with more functional football, using a good degree of pressing from the front but a pretty neutral approach to possession. It wasn’t much like either the previous year’s counter attacking or Swansea’s tiki-taka, but it worked. The problem Rodgers made was that he got angsty. One bad game against Manchester United and he seemed to think the world had “figured out” the system, so he moved away from it. Terrible results in the remainder of his time at Anfield ensued.
I’ll be honest with you and admit I don’t know a great deal about his time at Celtic. But I do know he maintained a lot of this flexibility. The nature of the beast is that a side as dominant in their domestic league as Celtic will inevitably have most of the ball. Opponents are going to sit back because, come on, what else are they going to do against Celtic? While a problem at Liverpool was in breaking down deep blocks structurally, that’s the entire point for the green and white half of Glasgow. Rodgers was able to use possession much more purposefully and penetratively here than he did at Swansea, scoring freely and easily.
Then, when he heads down to Leicester, he looks at what’s working in football. Things have changed while staying the same. Pep Guardiola is still the best manager in world football, but he’s evolved. His Manchester City dominate possession, but push the central midfielders much higher up to become “free eights”, while direct wingers stay very wide. It’s less controlled but just as effective. Rodgers, as ever in his life, thinks “I can do that”.
He gradually settles on a team with James Maddison and Youri Tielemans as the free eights. This makes a lot of sense because Wilfried Ndidi is a superb holding midfielder who can cover a lot of the gaps they thus leave. He’s used various wingers, but most often it was Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez tasked with offering direct running and low crosses into the main man, Jamie Vardy. The striker has had something of a renaissance under Rodgers after a slight decline, and it’s been about focusing his efforts in the box with decent positional play providing the chances for him. Vardy and Rodgers are a fitting combination here, as while Rodgers loves to rip off tactics he’s seen from top managers, Vardy is essentially trying to mirror the late career evolution of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Good artists copy while great artists steal, right? Rodgers won’t build you the chapel, as Guardiola said of Cruyff at Barcelona. But he’ll do you a damned good knock off of the chapel.
And so we come to the present day. Rodgers got a lot of criticism for another “late season collapse” after the restart. Because, you know, when something happens twice, that’s definitely a clear pattern. In truth, Leicester’s numbers were pretty strong throughout this period. They overperformed expected goals in much of the first half of the campaign, then got hit with a bad run of finishing form down the stretch. It makes for a bad narrative, but there was nothing there to suggest something real had deteriorated.
The bigger concern came with Ndidi’s injury. A case can be made for Vardy, but to me this felt like the one position Leicester could least afford to lose someone. If they played their usual game, suddenly the Foxes would be wide open to any side running straight through the midfield.
There was maybe one trick up his sleeve, one style of football he’d never played for, that it was time to try. It was time to defend deep. The shape is 3-4-3, but this is a different kind of football to when he used that formation at Liverpool. The pressing has been turned way down. Last season, Leicester allowed the opponents 7.95 passes before making an attempt to win the ball back (per Understat). That was the fewest in the league, telling you that Leicester were ferocious at winning it back. The season is still young, but this year the figure has almost doubled to 14.78, the seventh most in England’s top flight. They’re very content to sit back in a deep block for long periods and hit you on the break.
This has made Leicester absolutely able to compete without midfield control. Their xG difference per game of +0.61 (per Football Reference with data from StatsBomb) is third best in the league and actually an improvement on last year. There might be a bit of a penalty skew in there, but regardless it’s still looking impressive for them. They’re good. And do not be surprised at all if they change the style of football again once Ndidi is fully fit.
Rodgers talks about his tactical identity a lot, but the truth is he doesn’t have one. He’s become a true pragmatist. We talk a lot about certain footballing philosophies in the modern game, but I do wonder if more managers should be willing to just try different things and see how they work. Rodgers is a studious coach in many ways, able to understand the underlying tactics behind different styles of play and integrate them quickly. It’s a real talent, and it shouldn’t be slept on.
Or maybe it was all just Suarez.