Leicester City 2021/22: Why Brendan Rodgers has struggled to get the best out of the Foxes this season – tactical analysis
In Brendan Rodgers‘ first two seasons at the club, Leicester City missed out on Champions League qualification on the final day of the season. This being regarded as a failure demonstrates the high standards Rodgers has set at Leicester and the levels he demands of his players. Despite that, the 2020/21 season finished on a high with an FA Cup final triumph against the soon-to-be European Champions Chelsea at Wembley.
This term, it has been a case of one step forward, two steps back for the Foxes. Arriving within touching distance of a top-four finish and coming short at the last hurdle twice has definitely taken its toll on the players. Never-ending injury woes and inconsistencies within the squad meant Leicester could not pose any threat of breaking into the top four this time round. They have slid down the Premier League table, currently in 9th place, with the club set to miss out on a top five finish for the first time since 2018/19.
Leicester surrendered a 3-1 lead against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup, eventually losing on penalties, and endured a shock 4-1 FA Cup exit at the hands of Nottingham Forest. In addition, their Europa League campaign was hugely disappointing after a promising start. They finished third in the group and dropped into the new Europa Conference League’s knockout stages.
Being 1-0 down to PSV Eindhoven in the quarter-finals of the Europa Conference League last week and on the brink of elimination, the whole season was hanging in the balance. Rodgers made some excellent substitutions as Leicester came back from behind in the last 15 minutes to secure their place in the semi-finals. With virtually nothing to play for in terms of the league, the club still has a chance to finish the season on a high with a first ever European trophy.
In this tactical analysis, we analyze the reasons behind Leicester’s struggles this season and why Rodgers has failed to get the most out of his squad.
Leicester’s season has been plagued by a crippling run of injuries and COVID-19 cases. No Premier League team has lost more minutes to injury this season than Leicester. If you ask any manager in the world, they will tell you that the most crucial factor to sustaining any good run of form is consistency and continuity. Rodgers has not had the luxury of choosing a settled side and sticking by it week after week to build momentum and rhythm. He has been forced to chop and change at every corner without being able to field his strongest starting eleven at any point during the season.
Most notably, he has been robbed of his first-choice centre-backs for the majority of the campaign. Wesley Fofana only made his first appearance of the season in March after suffering a horrific leg break last August, while a hamstring surgery has also sidelined Jonny Evans for several months. In the period between December and January, when the fixtures start to pile up, Leicester had 9 senior players missing through injury and COVID-19. They would go on to lose an additional four players for the African Cup of Nations in Nampalys Mendy, Daniel Amartey, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfried Ndidi, all important assets in the squad. This forced Rodgers to raid the Under 23s to support the eight senior outfield players he had available at the time.
Leicester’s involvement in Europe also doesn’t help in terms of fatigue. The Thursday-Sunday conundrum can be a hectic one. In their 12 games played post-European matchdays, Leicester have won six, drawn two and lost four.
Playing that many games with more or less the same personnel takes its toll and leads to overusing players. That often results in injuries or rushing players back from the treatment table to cover for the shortage in numbers.
“There is a snowball effect because other players have to be risked, you are hoping they get through it and then they don’t. There is this constant knock-on effect. Some end up playing more than you would like when fatigued and that takes away the intensity of our game.”, stated Rodgers.
In addition, the long-term absence of talisman Jamie Vardy has been a problem since the turn of the year. Despite starting just 19 games out of a possible 49 in all competitions, Vardy is still the team’s 2nd leading goalscorer with 12 goals. To add salt to the wounds, Ndidi was ruled out for the remainder of the season following his knee injury against Rennes last month. Being one of the main forces in the Leicester midfield, that is a big blow for the final run-in. In the Premier League, the Foxes have conceded an average of 1.55 goals per game with Ndidi compared to the 2.22 goals shipped without the Nigerian star.
To further highlight their poor form, Leicester have won seven points from the Big Six teams this season, compared to 19 last term.
While Leicester’s attacking play has been fantastic at times, they have been simply dreadful at the back.
Let’s look at some of the stats. This season, Leicester City have:
– Conceded 77 goals in all competitions (46 in the PL) so far, more than any Premier League team. 16 of those goals have come after the 80th minute.
– Kept just five clean sheets in the PL, only one away from home.
– Dropped 29 points from winning positions in the PL.
– Conceded the most goals to substitutes in the PL (7).
If all of their games this season had ended at 90 minutes, with no injury time played, Leicester City would be just five points off sixth with two games in hand.
But that has not been the case. First of all, Evans, Fofana, Castagne, Bertrand, Pereira and Justin have been missing for long periods during the season. This has forced Rodgers to switch to a back four to cope with the shortage. During 2020/21, Leicester played with a back three on 27 occasions, compared to only 10 times this season, opting mainly for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Consequently, Amartey has been forced to cover as an emergency centre-back which is not his natural position. Without Evans in the Premier League this season, Leicester have a win percentage of 31.2 per cent. With him, that jumps to 41.7 per cent. They concede nearly 2 goals a game without him, down to 1.5 with him.
In the league, Leicester have conceded the third highest number of shots behind only Burnley and Norwich, two teams in the relegation zone.
One of the most bizarre endings to a football game unfolded when Leicester hosted Spurs at the King Power Stadium in January. With 94 minutes on the clock, the home side were ahead 2-1 and looking like nailed on winners.
On 94:47, Spurs are pushing for an equalizer and the ball is at the feet of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Leicester were beginning to show signs of nervousness and tiredness. Højbjerg picks out Doherty down the right flank with Justin, in his first game back after his anterior cruciate ligament injury, late to sense the danger. The ball eventually falls to Steven Bergwijn in the area to level the scoreline.
The game restarts and Tielemans receives the ball from the kick-off. He ignores two safe passes wide to Albrighton and Justin and attempts the dangerous pass to Barnes which is intercepted by Højbjerg. Still, Leicester should be able to deal with the situation.
The ball reaches Harry Kane in the middle of the park, and Vestergaard decides to drop off instead of closing him down. Kane being Kane, drills the ball in behind the Leicester backline into the sprinting Bergwijn who rounds Schmeichel to score the winner. In the span of 80 seconds, Leicester implode and concede twice to surrender the three points.
In general, City are poor at defending on the transition. If they lose the ball while in attacking areas and are not in their defensive shape, the opposition find it quite simple to get past them or cut through them. That was the case for the second Spurs injury-time goal.
Then there’s the matter of inviting pressure. When you are only leading by one, the other team are going to push hard to get an equalizer, and Rodgers has opted to bring on an extra defender when defending a lead which has backfired on numerous occasions, as Leicester have dropped a whopping 29 points from winning positions in the league.
Leicester have been woeful at defending set-pieces for the past two seasons. As seen below, they have conceded 16 goals from set-pieces this term, no team has conceded more. The rot was also established last season as they gave away 12 goals from corners and freekicks.
During his managerial career, Rodgers always favoured a mix of zonal marking and man to man, depending on the opposition.
From corners, Leicester would usually line up with the more physical tall players across the six-yard box and the striker on the field defending the near post. Three extra players would be tasked to block off opponents who are attacking the incoming cross.
In the Boxing Day clash vs Manchester City at the Etihad, Leicester’s set-piece weaknesses were exposed.
Fernandinho, Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte originally take positions in a straight line with Castagne, Tielemans and Iheanacho marking them man to man respectively. As we can see before the cross comes in, the three Leicester blockers just mentioned are standing with their backs to the ball, unaware of their surroundings.
Fernandinho and Dias make dummy runs towards the far post dragging out their markers, leaving Laporte to outmuscle Iheanacho in the six-yard box and head in the delivery from Mahrez.
In the fixture at Liverpool, the away side have everyone back to defend this corner. Inside the box are nine blue shirts against seven in red, but Leicester have two men covering the posts. Ndidi is marking Virgil Van Dijk while Justin is keeping tabs on Diogo Jota.
As the cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold is on its way, Ndidi tries to track Van Dijk’s run but stumbles into Fabinho on his way. This leaves Van Dijk with a clear run to win the header.
The Dutchman sends a powerful header across goal which is saved by Schmeichel, but the rebound unfortunately falls Jota’s way to pounce.
Rodgers must understand the root of the problem — in the lack of determination from his players to attack the ball in key moments.
“Defending corners is about organization but it is primarily about wanting to put your head on it,” he says. “That is the reality of defending. You can go zonal, you can block, you can go man to man, but in defending a corner you have to have that will to head it. If not, then you will suffer and that is something that has happened too often this season.”
Leicester City’s summer signings Ryan Bertrand, Boubakary Soumare, Patson Daka, Jannik Vestergaard and Ademola Lookman all failed to make an instant impact in the team for different reasons.
Speculation is already circling over who may arrive and who may leave Leicester this summer, as Rodgers has announced plans to overhaul his squad in the belief that the natural life of this group of players is coming to an end.
The board have already moved to secure Justin, Pereira and Fofana to new long-term deals. While those three deals have been a massive boost, there is still uncertainty over the contract situation of some players.
Leicester have a staggering 10 players whose deals end in 2023.
Kasper Schmeichel, Çağlar Söyüncü, Jonny Evans, Daniel Amartey, Ryan Bertrand, Hamza Choudhury, Papy Mendy, Youri Tielemans, Ayoze Perez, and Jamie Vardy.
It is widely known that a new contract offer for Tielemans has been on the table for around a year, he just hasn’t signed it. The Belgian international feels that he is now at a stage in his career where he should be playing at Champions League level regularly and is seeking pastures new.
Perez has not had the impact Leicester fans would have hoped since signing in 2019. He has made just 61 starts in his 90 appearances across three seasons, scoring 12 goals and providing 9 assists.
In the list as well are club legends Schmeichel and Vardy. They do not possess huge transfer value so the risk of losing them on a free is not the biggest issue, but Rodgers would surely like to retain the services of his old guard.
Regardless of who stays and who moves on, recruitment in the summer will be key.
As it stands, the Europa Conference League will be the key factor in determining the status of Leicester’s season. In recent weeks, big players have recovered from injury to boost Rodgers’ selection at the right time for the final month of football.
This campaign has been a bumpy road for Leicester, but some positives always arise during tough circumstances. Not least, the emergence of Luke Thomas and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall. The pair, aged 20 and 23 respectively, have enjoyed prolonged periods in the starting eleven and hugely impressed, making a case to retain their places in the side even when the squad is fully fit.
James Maddison had a rough spell in the middle of the season where he was dropped from the team. However, he has now regained his best form and finds himself being directly involved in 22 goals in all competitions this season – 14 goals and eight assists – four more than any other teammate. Only two Englishmen from Europe’s top five leagues have scored more goals this season – Tammy Abraham (23) and Harry Kane (22).
“Collectively now the team is now getting back towards the level I want them to be,” Rodgers says. “You can see the movement and confidence in the team, how they play, their belief.”
“The most important thing this season is to finish with good momentum, finish at the level we can play and that will be a big boost for us going into the next campaign.”
His next challenge will be a European semi-final meeting with Roma and his former mentor Jose Mourinho.
What has been a tough and turbulent season for the club could still end in a historic climax.