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This season, Leicester City have won at Manchester City, Arsenal and Leeds United, and Brendan Rodgers recalls what he was asked after the most recent of those victories.
“I think there was a question put to me after the Leeds game about how did it feel to outdo the master tacticians in Marcelo [Bielsa] and Pep [Guardiola] and Mikel [Arteta],” the Leicester manager says. “With all due respect, Mikel has been a manager for less than one year – so that was what was deemed [a feat] for a British coach who has been coaching for 25-odd years!”
On Sunday, Rodgers takes his side – who are top of the Premier League – to his former club, Liverpool. Win there and the talk will not just be of him again fulfilling his goal of what he describes as “disrupting the market” by proving the “Big Six” is not set in stone, but of mounting a serious title challenge.
Certainly, Rodgers is once more at the vanguard of British coaches and, as his comment about Bielsa, Guardiola and, specifically, Arteta shows, the 47-year-old knows it can be harder to win around opinion if you are not a foreign manager.
“I think that’s something that’s been around for a long, long time,” Rodgers says. “I remember as a young coach seeing the headlines on that side of it. But we produce very, very good coaches … Of course I respect when a foreign manager comes in there is that novelty factor and everything else, and also the guys who come in have great qualities. But as British managers, we have always been judged in the most difficult league in the world and produce really good managers at this level.”
Chris Bascombe’s Liverpool briefing
None more so than Rodgers, although when he returned to the Premier League, after leaving Celtic in March 2019 and despite winning every honour north of the border, he knew he had a point to prove after the disappointing way it ended at Liverpool, where he was sacked in 2015 and replaced by Jürgen Klopp.
“I was excited at the challenge coming back to see if I could take a club into the top six,” Rodgers says. “There was a so-called Big Six and the trend showed you the gap was increasing. The only team that had come in there was Leicester five seasons ago [when they won the league]. So, it was going to be a huge challenge, but I felt coming to Leicester that, in time, we could create something here to disrupt the market, as such.”
Leicester were in 12th place when Rodgers took over and finished fifth in the last campaign, missing out on a Champions League place on the final day, having been up there all season before injuries hit hard.
Rodgers’s win percentage in the league is 51.8 per cent, just 0.4 per cent below Frank Lampard and only 1.1 per cent below Jose Mourinho. According to Opta statistics, he is far ahead of Arteta (46.4 per cent) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (42.6), and Rodgers has achieved this without anywhere near the same level of resources; encouraging young players such as Harvey Barnes, James Justin and Luke Thomas, getting the very best out of established talents including Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans and with some extremely shrewd transfer business.
In the last window, Leicester brought in Wesley Fofana, Timothy Castagne and Cengiz Under, which was balanced by the sale of Ben Chilwell. And that is without mentioning the smart tactics and organisation Rodgers has brought, which have included winning matches through what he calls “dangerous possession” rather than simply having the ball.
Timothy Castagne, one of Rodgers' shrewd signings
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Leicester beat City 5-2, but had just 28 per cent possession; they defeated Leeds 4-1 and had just 32 per cent. Liverpool, be warned.
In fact, if Klopp were to quit as Liverpool manager, Rodgers would be the obvious candidate for the club to turn to from within the Premier League, with perhaps a nod towards Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhüttl.
Given his history with Liverpool, given, of course, that Klopp is going nowhere and that Leicester would fight to keep him, it is highly unlikely to happen, but there is no doubt his currency is high.
Before the start of the season, Rodgers took the players to the Grove hotel in Hertfordshire for a couple of days as part of a bonding exercise. He got them to write down what helped them to be in the top six, what stopped them finishing in the top four and what they needed to do to take the next step.
“So, it’s just understanding why, rather than ignore it and get on with it because it’s something that hurts,” Rodgers explains. “Once we got it out in the open and looked at the challenges that faced us, then how are we going to respond? That then gave us a great base to start the season and look forward.”
No conversation with Rodgers in the build-up to facing Liverpool can take place without mentioning the 2013-14 season, when he came so close to winning the title after all those years, something Klopp finally achieved in the summer. How long will it take for him to stop being identified with what almost happened?
Rodgers took Liverpool to the runners-up spot in his second full season in charge at Anfield
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“Probably never. That’s how it goes,” Rodgers admits. “I like to think I have changed a lot and evolved a lot as a manager from when I first went into Liverpool at 39. I think it’s just something that will always be attached to me and I am not sure that will ever change. You just look to get on with your work, improve as a coach, improve the clubs that you are at and the players you are with.
“In particular, that 13-14 season was so special in terms of the football we played and how close we went, and it was the closest the club had been for such a period of time, there will always be a reference to that. How you are judged in any job is always up for debate and opinion but, for me, it’s not one I have taken too much heed of, really. There’s always a narrative around it being a positive or a negative.”
One of the unfair comments made of Rodgers’s time at Liverpool is that the side were too dependent on Luis Suárez; that they were a “one-man team”.
Surely, if Leicester won the league again then people would stop forever linking him with such an emotive, dramatic near-miss. “Maybe, but … I probably had Jamie Vardy then. I would only have done it because of Jamie,” Rodgers says, smiling.