Possession was once the mantra of Brendan Rodgers. This is the coach whose first season in the Premier League with Swansea the newly promoted team dominated the ball in a way that no newcomer has ever had in the competition. Only Manchester City completed more passes.
His dedication to that passing game resulted in Swansea receiving applause from the Anfield square this season. Soon after, he got the job in Liverpool. But it was Rodger’s willingness to adapt his approach that took him to a new level at Leicester.
September brought his first win against Pep Guardiola. In November, Jose Mourinho was beaten for the first time. There was a first win over his former employer Chelsea in January and Rodgers secured his first win over Jurgen Klopp earlier this month.
When James Maddison puts the term “Big Six” in quotation marks, it’s easy to see why. Leicester, who have been champions more recently than most of these six clubs, not only finished fifth last season and are looking good this time around to improve, but they continue to beat them.
Their record against these teams this season is five wins, one draw and one loss. If there was a mini-league between those “big seven” then Leicester is currently on the way to winning it.
This is because Rodgers, the ball owner, found a way to win nine of the ten games his team had less than half the ball. They were ruthless in the 5-2 win at Manchester City and the win against Liverpool.
“Maybe 10 to 12 years ago I was very fixated on one system and one way of working,” he tells Sky Sports. “In the modern game you need more than one system and more than one way.”
Leicester can completely dominate. Their season began with a 3-0 win at West Brom, in which they had 64 percent of the ball. They followed with a 4-2 win over Burnley – and 68 percent possession – at King Power Stadium.
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But the key to their league position and 25 games in the season they are in third place, just four points off their record at this stage of the title-winning campaign, is that Rodgers has the mindset – and the players – between them, too change ideas that optimize 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 when you play against top teams, of course, the press doesn’t have to be at the top of the field. You could refuse place a.” a bit deeper to use that space if you have it. “
It’s interesting that Rodgers framed it that way. In his view, Leicester is not sitting in a deep block to attack the strongest teams in the league. You still press and, according to Opta, are still in the top 6 for pressed sequences.
But sometimes they try to flip the ball in a different area of the pitch so that Harvey Barnes and Jamie Vardy can use the space when they’re on the defensive.
Barnes’ goal against Liverpool was the result of a turnover near the center circle. Vardy’s goal came just minutes before Youri Tielemans collected the ball in his own half. Leicester wasn’t as deep in either scenario, but was able to counter.
It was another long pass from Tielemans that led Cengiz Under to place the ball for Vardy in their 1-0 win over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in October. The home team had dominated the ball for a long time, but Leicester found a way to win.
“What we have here is that we are able to find the balance between possession, pressing, counter-pressing and counter-attacking. We can get into whatever we need to play to win a given game. This is a big one Merit for the players that we could adjust to it.
“It’s the maturation of the team and the maturation of me as a coach. This balance allows you to prepare for every game and find the solutions in those games.”
How Rodgers Makes Systematic Change for Leicester
There were times when Rodgers was accused of doing too much. The scurrying back and forth between systems leaves coaches open to criticism whenever the result doesn’t follow suit.
But nine Premier League wins with four and six wins with three show that both systems can work. This flexibility in formation and style has given players the confidence to believe they have the tools to win in a variety of ways.
It is important that they can change within games. Against Liverpool, the move to a diamond midfield with Barnes turned the game. At Everton, it was the halftime order to look at the flanks that allowed them to get back in.
In the 2-0 win over Chelsea, it was a small change in the break that she saw through. “We thank the manager for making a small move at halftime to create a 4-4-2 with no possession,” Maddison told Sky Sports. “Just those little things that think on our feet.”
Maddison has been praised for the candor in his interviews, and his youthful exuberance is contagious. Tielemans, who is six months younger than Maddison at the age of 23, belongs to the next generation in Leicester and is now acting as a real leader.
Since Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel continue to be key players and the influence of Wes Morgan and Christian Fuchs can still be felt, this mix of youth and experience is present.
It’s something Rodgers had to work on to promote.
“In the modern game, I think it’s the job of the coach or the manager to find that balance,” he explains. “When you have older players who were raised a certain way, it is very easy to look at the younger player and think that they are not as professional or purposeful as they were when they were young. But life is different.
“When you come in and overcome these challenges, you get to the point where you really start to see yourself. The older players now look at the younger players and admire them because they’re not afraid.”
“The young people look up to the older players because they see this experience, this support and this knowledge, which is absolutely critical to 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 try to have that mix of real top professionals alongside a group of young and hungry junior players. Here at the club we have a good balance with our senior players and our young players.
“Both are aligned and go very well together.”
In a way, Rodgers embodies that amalgamation of youth and experience himself. Although it’s been nearly a decade since he first hit the Premier League, he’s only 48 years old. Thirteen of the other 19 bosses in the competition are older than him.
He’s stayed fresh enough to adapt, but is now seasoned enough to be so sure of his beliefs that change was felt not as a compromise but as an evolution.
Seven years after the Premier League title race to the last day of the season with Liverpool and four years after his first triple with Celtic, Rodgers is a better coach than ever. Leicester are the beneficiaries. If there’s a big six, they’re in.