Brendan Rodgers will face former club Liverpool this weekend for the first time since he was sacked in 2015.
Under Rodgers, the Reds came agonisingly close to clinching a first ever Premier League title, but faltered at the final few hurdles in 2013/14, as ‘Crystanbul’ effectively quashed any hopes of ending a then-24-year wait for top-flight silverware.
However, since then the Northern Irishman has added a myriad of titles to his own trophy cabinet with Celtic, and is now excelling in the King Power dugout with Leicester City, where his Foxes side will look to end Liverpool’s perfect start to the Premier League campaign this weekend.
Rodgers will travel to his old stomping ground, Anfield, on Saturday with the wind in his sails having guided Leicester to third in the table this term, with a solitary defeat the only real blemish on an otherwise imperious start.
Since Claude Puel was relieved of his services back in February, the Foxes have been outstanding under Rodgers’ guidance, but how exactly has the former Liverpool manager transformed fortunes in the East Midlands?
From languid to lethal
One of the main sticking points among Leicester fans during the Puel era was a lack of balance between attack and defence, as well as experience and youth.
Puel was tasked with transitioning Leicester from an ageing, counter-attacking side – which won the title in 2016 – to a more youthful brand, capable of dominating games. It can hardly be argued that the Frenchman didn’t succeed in his mission to implement fresh ideas and blood in young players, with the Foxes trying to become a more possession-heavy side, and boasting the third-youngest playing squad last season.
However, despite Puel somewhat hitting this mark, he ultimately failed on account of the predictability and lack of intensity in his playing style, while also failing to truly strike up the right blend between young talent and some of Leicester’s more seasoned heads.
That has now changed. Under Rodgers, Leicester are a more ruthless and cut-throat ball-playing side. Not only do the Foxes now retain more possession, but they are much more effective with the ball at their feet.
If the style was monotonous under Puel, then it is ferocious with Rodgers at the helm; on average his side have registered more passes per 90 minutes than Puel’s (520.3 to 420.7), boast a better passing accuracy (82.34% to 76.55%) and have enjoyed more possession (55.51% to 49.46%).
But that added possession would count for very little if his players weren’t intent on getting the ball forward, which hasn’t been the case so far. Since Rodgers took over, the Foxes average more passes ending in the final third per 90 than under Puel (137.4 to 126.2), take on more touches in the opposition penalty area (24.8 to 20.8) and complete more fast breaks (0.76 to 0.73).
It should also be noted that prior to Rodgers’ arrival in March last season, Leicester were 12th in the league for most passes (12,062); this season, they are fifth (3,688), sitting above both Manchester United and Arsenal respectively.
Moreover, Leicester now have the eighth-youngest average aged squad in the Premier League, with Rodgers appearing to find the perfect composition between youth and experience.
Effective and entertaining
It can often be argued that entertaining football comes at a cost: to lose effectiveness. But, that mantra doesn’t seem to apply with Rodgers.
Not only are Leicester playing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football under the Carnlough-born tactician, but they are also picking up points and unsettling the traditional ‘big six’ in the process.
A true measure of how influential Rodgers has been at the King Power since he pitched up is in the number of points his side have accumulated; Leicester have picked up 31 points in the timeframe stretching back to his appointment in March, the third-most in the division.
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Only current league leaders Liverpool (49) and defending champions Manchester City (43) have amassed more than Leicester in those eight months.
Currently, the Foxes also boast the third-best goal difference in the league (+8) and have conceded the fewest number of goals (5) – less than Man City (7) and level with Liverpool.
That feat is only accentuated further when considering Leicester lost Harry Maguire for a world-record fee for a defender (£80m) in the summer to Man Utd.
The blossoming centre-back partnership of Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu has been one of the early success stories of the season, while attacking full-back duo Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira have shone in equal measure on the flanks.
Rodgers should, therefore, be commended for not only focusing on improvements to Leicester’s attack, but also for working around the clock to shore up a backline that could have been in severe trouble following the departure of a defensive talisman.
Should Liverpool be scared?
Liverpool recently became only the second club in Premier League history to win their opening seven matches, with the record currently held by Chelsea on nine wins (2005/06), but that could come to an end this weekend.
There are few weaknesses to pick out in Rodgers’ side; his defence – along with Kasper Schmeichel between the sticks – strikes the right mix between on-ball composure, attacking threat and competent defensive ability.
Jamie Vardy was the *only* outfield Leicester City player that started not to make successful tackle vs. Newcastle.
Çağlar Söyüncü and Dennis Praet were the *only* outfield starters that did not create a chance.
Brendan Rodgers’ side defend and attack as a unit. 💪 pic.twitter.com/qibnsw356t
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 29, 2019
In midfield, the arrangement of Wilfred Ndidi, Youri Tielemans and James Maddison offers a trident packed with creativity, a sensational passing range, and in the former, an elegant enforcer, adding the requisite amount of aggression to the middle of the park.
Finally, up top Rodgers has his 20-goal-a-season striker in Jamie Vardy, an experienced marksman capable of unsettling defenders, creating space and ultimately finishing chances, while in Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez, he has two versatile wingers who add an element of the unexpected, and are not afraid to either run at full-backs or drift inside, creating overlaps for the onrushing full-backs.
This will no doubt be a stern test for Jurgen Klopp. The German is not facing an all-out attacking unit – a la Norwich City – or an overly cautious outfit – a la Sheffield United – but rather a side somewhere in-between these two footballing philosophies.
The Foxes will be resilient at the back, forcing Liverpool to push men forward, which could ultimately backfire for the Reds, so Klopp will need to bring his tactical A-game this weekend if he wants to keep the gap between his side and Man City to at least five points.