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Why is it going wrong for Leicester?
They're dropping all the way down the table. What gives?
It’s January 2021 and, with half a season played, Leicester City are two points off the top of the Premier League.
“They may not be top for long”, The Athletic’s Leicester writer Rob Tanner claimed, “with others having games in hand, but going into the second half of the campaign they are in the hunt. This is now consistency from Leicester, to keep challenging the monopoly of the “big six” despite dramatically smaller budgets, and it deserves recognition.
“There is something special happening again at Leicester. It may not have the fairytale ending of 2016 and there will inevitably be a few bumps in the road, but Leicester under Rodgers will be hard to ignore.”
He was right that there was a real consistency in this team. They had been pushing in the first half of the previous season and they were doing so again. It did feel like Leicester were building something.
20 months later and it’s fallen apart. The second half of the 20/21 season saw midtable form, with Leicester being only the tenth best team from that January point onwards. The FA Cup win made it feel a lot sweeter, but the league form was concerning. The next season was more of that as the Foxes finished eighth with 52 points. Leicester needed to show this season that it was a fluke, a bad season against a now-expected standard of finishing in the European places. Instead, it looks like part of a trend of decline. Is this really the end of Leicester pushing in the top half of the table? Could they actually go down? Or should we see a fightback to save this campaign?
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Brendan Rodgers arrived at Leicester as the club was in midtable malaise. The club were eleventh in the table when he took over in February 2019 and his impact was instant. He could rely on an impressive defensive core of Kasper Schmeichel in goal, Jonny Evans and Harry Maguire at centre back, Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell at full back, and Wilfred Ndidi sitting just in front. Two of those players were about to move to top six clubs, but none of the others would’ve looked out of place heading in the same direction. In a 4-3-3 shape, Youri Tielemans and James Maddison were both able to push up from midfield as “free eights” due to the security Ndidi offered, while wingers Harvey Barnes and Demarai Gray would stay high and wide. Jamie Vardy of course led the line.
This was essentially a poor man’s version of Pep Guardiola’s first title-winning Manchester City team. Rodgers has always been an imitator more than an innovator. I don’t mean that as a criticism. He finds tactical ideas and steals them. One of his primary skills as a manager is his ability to think on his feet to reshape his side based on whatever he’s just seen work elsewhere.
Rodgers did a good job in that half-season playing much more enjoyable football with moderately better results. They took a big jump in xG, even if the real goals weren’t so different. The future looked bright. As I wrote at the time, “the team’s average age of 26.3 is one of the lower figures in the league, but even that number doesn’t tell the whole story, with older players such as Jamie Vardy (32) and Wes Morgan (35) pulling the mean upwards.
“The new core of this team is with players such as Ndidi, Maddison, [Hamza] Choudhury, Harvey Barnes, Ben Chilwell and Demarai Gray, all yet to turn 23. Tielemans also fits into this category, and would be a terrific signing if the club can strike a permanent deal for him, though that remains to be seen. Rodgers seems well positioned to reap the rewards of a young squad likely to improve even if no major additions are made.”
(God, my prose could be clunky back then. Never read your old writing.)
That summer, they sold Maguire to Manchester United for a huge fee and you know what happened there. James Justin, Ayoze Pérez and Dennis Praet came in, along with Tielemans becoming a permanent signing. They didn’t directly replace Maguire, but it looked for a while like they didn’t need to, with Çağlar Söyüncü stepping up to the plate excellently. Pérez became a useful player out wide and an upgrade on Gray, while Justin was a promising young full back getting minutes here and there. Praet just didn’t work out. It wasn’t a great window, but the existing core of young players improved enough that it didn’t matter.
The narrative arc of that season is that Leicester were in second place at Christmas then fell apart to finish fifth. They picked up 39 points in the first half of the campaign but just 23 in the second half. The xG difference was pretty similar in both halves of the season, but hey, that’s the magic of finishing for you. The narrative was setting in that Leicester bottled it, and narratives have no time for your fancy numbers when there’s banter to be had.
And as you all know, the same thing happened again.
This time they finally replaced Maguire and did so very well, bringing in Wesley Fofana. Ben Chilwell was sold to Chelsea with Timothy Castagne as his successor at the King Power Stadium. Cengiz Ünder also came in on loan, but I’m sure all involved would be happy to forget that happened. It was just moving pieces around for a squad Rodgers et al seemed happy with.
Results continued to be good, but the warning signs under the hood were severe. As StatsBomb pointed out, they had the second biggest drop-off in xG difference from year to year:
Some very strong finishing masked a clear weakness, but the xG (almost) always comes for you in the end. Leicester’s fall to midtable last season did not come out of nowhere in the data. They’ve been declining every year in the numbers since Rodgers’ first full campaign.
The worrying thing was they didn’t lose anyone important last summer and actually strengthened in terms of depth. Patson Daka and Boubakary Soumaré looked like really useful squad players who could mature into important starters. This was mostly the same core that Rodgers impressed with previously but with more maturity, and it blew up in his face.
Suddenly you get to this season and cash now seems to be tight. Schmeichel has gone with only long-time number two Danny Ward to replace him. Ward has been around Premier League clubs for a while at this point, so if he was really a good number one, you’d think he’d have established himself somewhere already. Fofana got a big money move to Chelsea while only a fraction of the cost was spent on replacing him with Wout Faes. If things were very clearly and sharply declining when the cash was flowing, what on Earth happens now they seem to have turned the taps off?
Of Rodgers’ most used players this season, six have been regular starters throughout his tenure: Evans, Ndidi, Maddison, Vardy, Tielemans and Barnes. Evans and Vardy are both well into their thirties, so can be forgiven if they’ve lost a step recently. But the other four are ages 24-25 so should, in theory, be playing better than ever. That’s not happening. Ndidi has spent time out of position at centre back, but even his games in midfield weren’t earning him many plaudits. Maddison has always run hot and cold as a player, and a few moments of quality haven’t made up for anonymous games like Brighton yesterday. Tielemans and Barnes have faired a little better, but I don’t think either have quite exploded.
I don’t think Rodgers has a great track record at improving young players. The way he will regularly change systems and approaches inhibits players from being able to concentrate on and develop specific skills. He also has a tendency to “encourage” players instead of challenging them to fix flaws in their game. Maddison reminds me a lot of Philippe Coutinho in this sense. Both players had brilliant ball progressing qualities along with a tendency to shoot from range at any opportunity. Instead of really pushing them to improve their decision making, Rodgers encouraged both to “express themselves”, with neither becoming the complete attacking midfielders they were capable of being. A different sort of coach might have challenged Maddison to really adapt to a system and become a more tactically aware player in the process.
Of the newer players that have come into the side, some were bought while others have been gradually promoted to the first team. That players such as Danny Ward and Daniel Amartey are playing more than ever doesn’t feel like a progression. It doesn’t feel like long ago that Leicester’s recruitment policy was being praised, and yet it’s hard to find too many recent transfer successes in the squad right now. They’ve let this side decay in an uncomfortable way.
Does Rodgers have the ability to turn it around? He’s always been good at finding the tactical solutions and thinking in different ways to others, but the record is that players seem to get burned out on his approach. It happened at Liverpool, where he seemed to run out of ideas while alienating half the squad and letting the other half tactically stagnate. He’s someone who relies on freshness and different approaches regularly and, eventually, he runs out of ideas with his approach wearing thin.
It looks like he’s reached that point at Leicester. A new manager can almost certainly get more out of these players, even if they’re not going to be aiming toward the top of the table. I don’t think Rodgers can reinvent this side. Time for a change.