Brendan Rodgers has a fascinating question to mull over before Saturday evening, one that few managers get to ponder: how to beat Manchester City – the same way as last time or a different, even bolder way?
There will be an obvious temptation to recycle the counterattacking masterplan that resulted in a thrilling 5-2 win at the Etihad Stadium in September but other options are available, such as the in-your-face, impeccably choreographed blitz that overwhelmed Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-final two weeks ago.
Versatility is a quality that Rodgers has honed at Leicester, and that is a big factor in the club’s continued progression. Beating Manchester City would probably not bring them back into the title race but would strengthen their chances of gaining a Champions League place as more proof of the development of Leicester, and of their manager.
Top educators need willing, capable students, which Rodgers has at Leicester thanks to savvy recruitment and a productive academy. They also need the ability to teach and the ability to keep learning. Regarding the first, Rodgers evidently gets through to his players. That is apparent from their performances and their spirit. When asked this week to describe his tutoring style, he explained why he is rarely seen raging from the dugout and does not do so in the dressing room or training ground, either.
“At the very highest level sometimes you have to be harsh to be clear but I’m not a shouter and a bawler,” he said. “I can get my message across very candidly – the players will tell you that – but I think the modern game is a bit like going to university. Players nowadays have a real good understanding of the technical and tactical part of the game and they understand the science as well as any generation of player. So they come to training to be better, they don’t come to be shouted at and psychologically destroyed by a coach or a manager.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t test them, challenge them and push them. But I’ve always found a way of trying to do that while having a level of respect for people.”
Sometimes those people do need what Rodgers terms “an emotive poke”. He said: “Sometimes you come in at half-time and it’s not the technical or tactical element of the game [that you need to address], it’s just an emotional hook that you need to get players to come on board with to play with greater intensity.”
A good example seemed to come against Brighton last month. Leicester travelled south on the back of disappointing results against Burnley and Arsenal and elimination from the Europa League by Slavia Prague. When Brighton took an early lead Leicester supporters began to fear, especially with injuries mounting again, that the club’s season might peter out like it did last year. Instead, Rodgers’s team emerged from half-time as if they had been plugged into a charger. They eked out a 2-1 win to get their season back on track, following it up with emphatic victories against Sheffield United and Manchester United. There is more to Leicester this season.
That is also why they have taken more points (16) off the supposed big six this season than they did in the whole of last season (when they took nine).
Which brings us back to the meeting with Manchester City. The 5-2 win offered irrefutable evidence of Rodgers’s own development, of the educator’s capacity to keep learning.
The one gripe with him during his trophy-laden time at Celtic was that too often he failed to adapt his approach against the most powerful European teams. But in September he surprised Pep Guardiola’s side by defending in numbers and sniping from deep with regular, ruthless precision. It was against his instincts to preach a strategy that secured only 28% of possession but Rodgers judged it right.
“For me it’s a difficult thing to do because I’m always a guy who likes the team to play with a level of dominance,” he said this week when recalling that match. “But sometimes it’s about recognising that the opponent has a real high level of technique and if you press the game as you would normally want to, they will expose you. It’s just about balance. There have been times where I could probably have done that a bit better in my career but now I’m a coach with a bit more wisdom and a little more evolution.”
In recent weeks his team have evolved in a way that few observers saw coming. Kelechi Iheanacho, for so long frustrated and frustrating, has emerged as a goal machine, scoring seven in his past four matches. “It is clear to see he is at his best when he has someone up there around him,” Rodgers said of the Nigerian who, in addition to scoring, has combined smartly with Jamie Vardy and Ayoze Pérez, who has thrived in a central role just behind the front two.
The question is whether Rodgers should use that system against Guardiola’s side on Saturday rather than coil back behind a lone striker like they did in September. And if so, should the manager replace Pérez with Maddison, who is back after missing the past six weeks with a hip injury and eager to make up for lost time, especially after missing the chance to impress Gareth Southgate in the last international break before England’s Euro 2020 squad is named?
Rodgers has options and tends to use them well. Which is why Leicester could slow Manchester City’s march to the title. And if both teams’ FA Cup semi-finals go the way they want this month, Rodgers could also become the manager to deny Guardiola the quadruple.