Possession was once Brendan Rodgers’ mantra. He is the coach whose first Premier League season with Swansea saw the newly promoted side dominate the ball like no newcomer to competition has ever done. Only Manchester City completed more assists.
His engagement in that passing game has led to Swansea being applauded from Anfield field this season. He landed the Liverpool job soon after. But it was Rodgers’ willingness to adapt his approach that brought him to a new level at Leicester.
September brought his first victory over Pep Guardiola. In November, Jose Mourinho was beaten for the first time. There was a first victory over former employer Chelsea in January and earlier this month Rodgers claimed his first victory over Jurgen Klopp.
When James Maddison puts aerial quotes around the term “big six,” it’s easy to see why. Leicester, champion more recently than most of those six clubs, not only finished fifth last season and looks well positioned to improve this time around, but they continue to beat them.
Their record against these teams this quarter is five wins, one draw and one loss. If there was a mini-league between these ‘big seven’ Leicester are currently on their way to winning it.
The reason is that Rodgers, the man of possession, found a way to win nine of the 10 games in which his team had less than half the ball. They were ruthless this Victory 5-2 at Manchester City and victory from behind against Liverpool.
“Maybe 10 to 12 years ago, I was very attached to a system and a way of working,” he says. Sky Sports. “In modern gaming you need more than one system and more than one way.”
Leicester are capable of completely dominating. So their season began with a 3-0 win at West Brom in which they held 64 percent of the possession. They followed with a 4-2 win over Burnley – and 68% possession – at King Power Stadium.
But the key to their position in the league, and after 25 games in the season they’re third, just four points behind their total at this point in the winning campaign, is that Rodgers has the attitude – and the players – to switch between ideas, optimizing the approach forever.
“We still have our principles,” he explains.
“We want to dominate the games. We want to push as high as possible. But naturally, when you play against top teams, the press doesn’t have to be in the high end. You could deny the space to one. shallow deeper to exploit that space when you have it. “
It’s interesting that Rodgers frames it that way. In his view, it’s not that Leicester are sitting in a deep block to counterattack against the strongest teams in the league. They are still pressing and, according to Opta, still rank in the top six for rushed streaks.
But sometimes they look to return the ball to a different area of the pitch in order to allow Harvey Barnes and Jamie Vardy to exploit the space in the defense race.
Barnes’ goal against Liverpool was the result of a roll near the center circle. Vardy’s goal just a few minutes earlier came when Youri Tielemans got the ball back in his own half. Leicester wasn’t that deep seated in either scenario, but was able to counter.
It was another long pass from Tielemans that put Cengiz Under on the sidelines for Vardy to score in the 1-0 win over Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in October. The home side had dominated the ball for long stretches of the game but Leicester found a way to win.
“What we have here is that we are able to find the balance between possession, pressing, counterattack and counterattack. We can fit into whatever we need to play for. winning a specific game, it’s a huge credit to the players that we were able to adapt to that.
“It’s the maturation of the team and it’s the maturation of me as a coach. This balance allows you to be prepared for every game and to find solutions in those games.”
How Rodgers makes systematic change work for Leicester
There have been times when Rodgers has been accused of tinkering too much. Switching from one system to another always leaves coaches critical when the result doesn’t follow.
But nine Premier League wins with four behind and six wins with three behind show that both systems can work. This flexibility in build and style has given players the confidence to believe they have the tools to win in many ways.
Above all, it allowed them to change in matches. Against Liverpool, the move to a diamond midfielder with Barnes up front changed the game. At Everton, it was the half-time instruction to look at the flanks that allowed them to recover.
In the 2-0 win over Chelsea, it was a minor change to the interval that got them through. “Thanks to the manager, we had a little change at half time to go to a 4-4-2 out of possession,” said Maddison Sky Sports. “Just little things like that, thinking on our feet.”
Maddison has garnered praise for the openness of her interviews and her youthful exuberance is contagious. Tielemans, who at 23 is six months younger than Maddison, is another member of the next generation at Leicester who is emerging as true leaders.
With Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel remaining key players, as well as the influence of Wes Morgan and Christian Fuchs still felt, that blend of youth and experience is there.
This is something Rodgers had to work on to foster.
“In modern play, I think it’s the job of the coach or the manager to find that balance,” he explains. “When you have senior players who have been brought up in a certain way, you can very easily look at the younger player and think that they are not as professional or determined as they were when they were young. But life is different.
“When you come in and deal with these challenges, you get to a point where you start to really see yourself. Senior players now look to young players and admire them because they are not afraid.
“Young people admire senior players because they see that experience, that support and that knowledge that is absolutely essential for their development, because a young player will not develop if he does not have that experience around him.
“I look at what we have. I always tend to try to have that mix of real top senior professionals alongside a bunch of promising, hungry young players. Here at the club we have a great balance. with our senior players and our young players.
“The two are aligned and come together very well.”
In a sense, Rodgers embodies this amalgamation of youth and experience himself. Although almost a decade has passed since he first managed in the Premier League, he is only 48 years old. Thirteen of the 19 other bosses in the competition are older than him.
He’s stayed cool enough to adapt, but he’s now experienced enough to be so sure of his beliefs that making changes felt not like a compromise but an evolution.
Seven years after winning the Premier League title race on the last day of the season with Liverpool and four years after his first hat-trick with Celtic, Rodgers is a better manager than ever. Leicester are the beneficiaries. If there’s a big six, they’re in it.