Leicester must keep calm as Rodgers deal with season three syndrome | Brendan Rodgers
Jthere was a rumor last week that Brendan Rodgers had been sacked as Leicester City manager. It turned out not to be true, but the fact that it sounded so believable was telling. The improved performance against West Ham – as they were denied victory only by a late equalizer that sparked one of football’s increasingly frequent epistemological debates: what is a hand? – may have calmed the situation ahead of Sunday’s game against Wolves, but the pressure is very real.
Rodgers may have taken Leicester twice to fifth in the Premier League (with the ninth-highest wage bill) and only won the FA Cup last season, but the discontent at the King Power has been palpable. It was this week five years ago that Leicester sacked Claudio Ranieri, who led them to the title the previous season. So perhaps a switch could be justified as a sad necessity to ward off the threat of relegation. But that’s not a realistic possibility this season, even though Leicester’s run without a domestic win now stretches to five games, including that humiliating FA Cup loss to Nottingham Forest.
This is modern football. The fulfillment of one season becomes the expectation of the next season. Credit at the bank is being burned so rapidly that much of it is theoretical. There are no second chances: as soon as something goes wrong, the automatic call is for the dismissal of the manager; one bad month can wipe out years of growth and success.
Still, it’s an open secret that Rodgers was considered by Manchester City to succeed Pep Guardiola when he eventually leaves the club, and that his interest in the job was one of the reasons he didn’t. not seen being offered the Tottenham job this summer.
Rodgers plays the right kind of football. He is one of only four managers to win silverware with Leicester (and only two if you exclude the League Cup). He won every possible domestic trophy with Celtic. He has brought Liverpool closer to the league title than they have been in 24 years. He took Swansea on promotion. He has a record of developing young players. But that presents a paradox: how could Rodgers have been a candidate last year to take over the league champions in series and yet now be seemingly on the brink at Leicester?
There is a theory that Rodgers is particularly sensitive to Bela Guttmann’s saying that the third year is fatal, that after two seasons players begin to tire of his methods. And it’s probably true that there’s a natural lifespan for some of the guru gadgets that were on display in the TV documentary Being Liverpool.
But the supporting evidence is thin to non-existent. Rodgers was only at Swansea for two seasons. It is true that his third season at Liverpool saw a drop from 2.21 points per game to 1.63. But that may simply have been the result of the sale of Luis Suárez to Barcelona coupled with falling back to par after a stellar season and feeling emotionally drained after coming so close to winning the Premier League. When Rodgers left Celtic in February of his third season, they were collecting 2.33 points per game, down from 2.15 in his second.
Yet the idea that managers have a natural cycle of about three years is one that has persisted for at least half a century. When Jack Charlton took over the Middlesbrough job in 1973, he was warned by Jock Stein to mitigate obsolescence at all costs, either by moving on himself or shaking up the squad. But then, as Rodgers himself acknowledged this week, at a club of Leicester’s stature, that process of renewal is built in as better players seek to move on: in recent years no English team has managed to identify relatively cheap young talent, to nurture and resell it. Youri Tielemans, who has been linked with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, appears to be the next Leicester star to be sold.
But, more fundamentally, it is impossible to assess Leicester this season without considering the players they have been without. Wesley Fofana has missed 23 league games with injury, James Justin 19, Nampalys Mendy 14, Jonny Evans 13, Ricardo Pereira 10, Timothy Castagne six and Jamie Vardy and Tielemans each four. Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi and Mendy were all absent at the Africa Cup of Nations. It’s not just that a lot of players miss a lot of games, it’s that a lot of them are concentrated at the back, where they coincided with (and possibly contributed to) Caglar Soyuncu suffering from a loss of form after the Euro.
This may partly, albeit only partly, explain why they have conceded 11 goals from corners this season, more than any other Premier League team and a remarkable 27% of their total goals conceded. But Leicester also let 11 corners pass last season, which was the worst in the division; it is a persistent problem.
Rodgers switched to a man-marking system from set pieces after the win over Liverpool before the New Year, but with no obvious improvement. Rodgers came dangerously close to blaming his players, saying: “You can go into the zone, you can block, you can go man-to-man, but to defend a corner you have to have that will to direct it.” To some extent he’s right, and when better defenders return and confidence improves, Leicester will likely be more decisive. But that doesn’t explain why it’s such a long-term problem.
So it’s an obvious concern, a problem that needs a solution. It may be that Rodgers is unable to find it, that some form of (complete) third season syndrome has afflicted him, and the situation is beyond repair. But injuries offer an equally reasonable explanation.
There are times when a manager is clearly stagnant and a change is needed but, even with all the absences, Leicester only entered the weekend two places below what their wage bill suggests they would. should be (with two games down). Football is an impatient sport, but surely it’s time for Leicester to keep their cool.