A lot can change in five years, a fact Brendan Rodgers knows all too well. The Leicester City manager is marking the anniversary of his Liverpool sacking, and a subsequent fall from grace that was perhaps unfair and almost certainly further than deserved.
Rodgers would likely agree with that assessment, but on the jubilee of that dark day, as he produced his finest moment as boss at the King Power, he might also admit everything has worked out just fine.
His "best result" is how Rodgers described Sunday’s 5-2 thrashing of Pep Guardiola’s side at the Etihad Stadium, a triumph that moved the Foxes to the top of the Premier League with a perfect three wins from three this season.
Citizens midfielder Rodri took umbrage with the upset and told BBC Radio 5 Live Leicester “were lucky” to get the result, but the efficacy of Rodgers’ tactics and their execution by his players painted a far different picture:
This was no smash-and-grab against last season’s Premier League runners-up, but instead a coming together of components that's been years in the making. It’s well founded that Leicester—top-flight champions for the first time in 2016—are an astutely run outfit boasting some of the best recruitment in England, and it seems that now applies to managerial selection, too.
Despite the disappointing end to his Liverpool stay and the success enjoyed by his replacement, Jurgen Klopp, Rodgers has blossomed again with the tools in place to forge his own legacy at Leicester.
Right Place, Right Time
Seldom is there one singular reason leading to a coach’s dismissal at the top level, and there were plenty to justify axing Rodgers when he was shown the Anfield exit in October 2015. The Northern Irishman had revolutionised Swansea City’s prospects in two short seasons, but the demands on Merseyside proved too vast.
He had become the first Liverpool chief in more than half a century to not win a trophy in his first three seasons, struggling to get the necessary results. Looking back now and considering the heights to which Liverpool have since ascended, even Rodgers, 47, may admit the position was too great for him (at the time).
But his stay at the King Power Stadium—buffered by a hugely successful two-and-a-half seasons with Celtic—has thus far restored his reputation in Premier League circles.
Sunday’s result provided evidence backing up his prowess and ability to outmanoeuvre a coach of even Guardiola’s prestige, optimising Leicester’s quick counter capability to devastating effect:
The Foxes are a far cry from the team Rodgers inherited in February 2019, even though the team’s core makeup is largely unchanged since his arrival. Leicester lost 2-1 to now-relegated Watford in his first match at their helm, but 10 of the 14 players who featured at the Etihad on Sunday were part of the squad who lost that day at Vicarage Road.
Belgian duo Timothy Castagne and Dennis Praet are the most notable new faces compared to then, while James Justin has since embraced his role as one of England’s hottest prospects at full-back.
That balance between market investment and academy awareness continues to serve Leicester well. Following Harry Maguire’s sale to Manchester United last year for almost $100 million, the Foxes fleeced another defender to a top-flight rival this summer, this time selling left-back Ben Chilwell to Chelsea for $65 million.
It’s a credit to the sustainability put in place by chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha—as well as his late father and former club owner, Vichai, who died in October 2018—but also to the manager, in his target of adapting the team to change.
Leicester and Manchester City represent near-polar opposites in their approach to squad investment among the top Premier League teams, yet the former continues to flourish:
Leicester shocked the world when they won the Premier League under Claudio Ranieri in 2016, but the team went on to record three consecutive mid-table finishes (12th, ninth and ninth). Rodgers led the team back to fifth last term and just shy of a UEFA Champions League place, a solid first step to cementing their place among a refreshed English hierarchy.
If a trophy-less three-year reign at Anfield was seen as ragged, his move to the King Power Stadium can be seen as fitting like the proverbial glove. Backed by a board that continues to impress in its decision-making, Rodgers looks to have the right amount of sway in Leicester to orchestrate his plans to good effect, and without the weight of expectation he felt on Merseyside.
Man-ager of the People
It was a boon and a burden for Rodgers to take over a squad like Liverpool’s in June 2012.
The Reds had just won the League Cup—their first major trophy in six years—and had a team dotted with international stars, as well as the egos that come with the territory. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher were the sole survivors left from their Champions League-winning squad of seven years earlier, but numerous were guilty of playing as though they had been part of that history, too.
It’s part of a manager’s responsibility to enforce discipline in his methods, but there must also be a willingness from his players to embrace what they’re being taught. Rodgers is older and wiser following spells in Liverpool and Glasgow, but it’s entirely possible some at Anfield felt above his teachings and the progressive play he hoped to promote.
Leicester’s fairytale title of four years ago doesn’t appear to have had the same effect in making their squad complacent, with none fooled as to what a rare accomplishment that was for a club their size.
If results are any indication of a team fully invested in their manager’s blueprint, Leicester have shown all the signs of belief during Rodgers’ first 18 months or so at the club. They looked capable of challenging Manchester City for second in the Premier League until last season’s coronavirus suspension, and this campaign has demonstrated their willingness to shift depending on the opposition.
That will encourage a coach whose one-on-one management Gerrard once hailed as "the best I've known." Free agent Danny Simpson, who was a part of Leicester’s title-winning team in 2016, more recently voiced support for Rodgers, suggesting his quality at the top has been known for some time:
It may have been interpreted as a weakness that Rodgers was too workman-like in his approach to the Liverpool job, but that modesty will work in the opposite manner at the King Power. Leicester’s repeated ability to sell select stars for great profit before replacing them with such panache is proof that no-one is greater than the collective, an all-involving strategy that works in favor of Rodgers’ possession-based tactics.
Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United—who finished a respective seventh and ninth in the Premier League last season—showed the power of proper tactics still count for a lot. Nuno Espirito Santo and Chris Wilder brought limited experience in England’s top flight but managed to surprise with fresh visions for their teams.
The group of Premier League clubs ready to compete for European places continues its trend of expanding in recent years, and a Leicester team under Rodgers’ command has the potential to break the mold in the long term. With him guiding their hand, the Foxes can afford to start dreaming of title challenges as part of the norm in the new-look Premier League pecking order.