Football Features

The next two weeks could define Leicester’s season (and the rest of Brendan Rodgers’ career)

By Ed Capstick

I think Enganche's also need to be a bit taller than average No 10's, let's say +1.81m. Later, "Enganche" category sees an increase in numbers with different players but the household/trademark name for this is J.R Riquelme, yet I haven't heard his name in this entire video. Headline is "What is an Enganche?" , just to mention. PS: I'm from EU. Not Argentinian or even South American.

Published: 15:40, 15 December 2021 | Updated: 19:04, 16 December 2021

There are certain factors that may explain Leicester City’s slow start to 2021/22, but they must turn the tide now or risk their season truly unraveling and becoming one of mediocrity.

On the 23rd of May, in the driving East Midlands rain, having just seen his side blow a 2-1 lead with fifteen minutes to go, at home to a rudderless Tottenham side, and missing out on Champions League qualification on the final day of a second successive season, Brendan Rodgers cut a defiant figure. He made no excuses. He declined to comment on two contentious refereeing decisions. He just reflected on a successful season. “I have nothing but pride in the players,” he repeated twice, with that steely schoolmaster’s glare. 

And pride he certainly had. His Leicester City side had spent 567 days in the top four over two seasons. They had just won the FA Cup for the first time in their history, and were fresh off the back of a season in which they defeated each of the top four at least once. They had officially established themselves as a force. And they had done so from – the weirdness of 2016 aside – a standing start. 

Yet, whatever the soupy, sunset-backed google-image quotes might suggest, ‘resilience’ is no walk in the park. The mental energy that it takes to recover from abject disappointment is difficult to muster once. To do so twice is borderline Herculean. 

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It is understandable then, that Leicester’s season-to-date has been so underwhelming. What started slowly has failed to develop, and the stuttering form that has left them lurking in mid-table has now dumped them from the Europa League, into a competition that their manager was unaware even existed. In some sense, at least, this can be viewed as a natural consequence of the past two years. A hangover from those heady, heady days.   

Football, however, is an unforgiving business. One that has little time for such sentiments, and demands concrete answers. If a team is struggling, the media and the fanbase want to know exactly what is going wrong, and what can be changed.

With Leicester, the case clearly rests with the defence. Having conceded 40 goals in all competitions, and with the fifth-worst xGC (expected goals conceded) in the Premier League (24.84), it is fair to say they have issues. Exactly what those issues are, however, is not quite as simple to pin down. 

There have been injuries, sure. Wesley Fofana’s pre-season leg break was a huge loss, Jonny Evans’ now-customary niggles have continued, and Jannik Vestergaard has struggled for fitness since his arrival. And there are also the much-publicised set-piece troubles. Only Crystal Palace (10) have conceded more than their nine set-piece goals, losing points to Southampton, Leeds United and Aston Villa by deadball scenarios in the last month alone.

Yet, Rodgers’ Leicester have seemingly always been in the grips of an injury crisis, with several key players missing swaths of last season. And they have always been ropey in the set-piece department – last term, only five clubs conceded more than their twelve set-piece goals.

Yes, there is still a dip here, and yes, the injuries are a problem; but not that much has changed. Wilfred Ndidi is still doing Wilfred Ndidi things in front of the defence, with 2.2 interceptions per 90 minutes, the most of any midfield regular (306+ minutes). Caglar Soyuncu is still doing Caglar Soyuncu things, ranking second for possessions won in the defensive third (65), third for headed clearances (39) and seventh for passes (1,003) among defenders. In many ways, the underlying numbers paint an image of this season’s Leicester being more or less the same as last season’s Leicester. 

Of course, the reality says different. Because there are certain things that aren’t so readily reflected in numeric form, and on which a game can turn in an instant. Sharpness, intensity, alertness, focus: the things most reliant on mental energy.

Rodgers, you sense, knows that this has been Leicester’s problem. After losses last week, he cited issues with mentality, naivety, concentration and decision-making as explanatory factors for Leicester’s shortcomings. And what’s more, there is a suggestion that he knows that this is just the way of things. The steel and defiance of last season has ebbed away a touch, and in its place, a kind of vague acceptance: part zen, part supply-teacher, a shrug of his shoulders as he puffs out his cheeks to analyse another defensive mishap for the media. 

Maybe this is because he has faith that they will come good. He spoke after the Villa and Napoli games recently about how close he felt his side were to turning a corner. How their intensity was returning, they were pressing better – which is backed up by the numbers, incidentally. In the Premier League and Europa League this season, Leicester’s opposition averages 11.72 passes per defensive action. Against Villa, this plummeted to 6.63 — the lowest figure in any game this season. This was followed by 10.05 PPDA against Napoli (PPDA measures the average number of opposition passes in their first 60% of the pitch per defensive action. The higher the number, the less intense the defending/pressing of the defending team is likely to be).

So, Leicester appear to be closing down more, playing with a higher intensity and unsettling opposition defences with a more energised vertical press. And on Sunday, that pattern certainly continued.

Even if it did come with the sizeable caveat of being against a Newcastle side intent on self-sabotage, and even though there have been false four-goal dawns before this season, this win still felt significant. With a first clean sheet since the opening day of the season, two-goal Youri Tielemans making more completed passes (50) and tackles (five) than anyone teammate, and James Maddison purring like we know he can, this was the Leicester of last season: skilful, effective, but above all, with too much bustling energy for opponents to handle. It was the speed of their press that earned the penalty to open the scoring, and it was the snap to their play that finished them off.

Rodgers must hope that this is indeed the start of something substantial. With Spurs, Everton, City and Liverpool to come in the league, and the latter in the Carabao Cup before the year is out, the next few games could be genuinely season-defining for Leicester. 

And if football can be an unforgiving business, it is fickle in the extreme. In the space of a month, Rodgers has gone from the ‘Cheshire House Hunting’ headlines of a man linked with the United job, to the subject of a ‘Support Barometer’ poll on Leicester’s subreddit. Whilst only 17% of fans said definitively that they wanted him out, the 31% undecided is an indication of how quickly one’s stock can fall. 

An excellent December, and the damage will be undone; the season will be salvageable and the sense will remain that the club is still moving in the right direction. A bad one, and more serious questions will be asked. Either way, with the first real murmurings of discontent that he has had to deal with at Leicester, we’ll soon discover just how defiant Brendan Rodgers really is.

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