Leicester and Brendan Rodgers are spiralling towards total failure
Brendan Rodgers probably wasn’t trying to channel Leicester’s other most successful manager since Martin O’Neill when he said that his target for the season was 40 points. It was Claudio Ranieri’s regular refrain in 2015-16, too, even up to the stage when Leicester had 38 before Christmas of what proved a title-winning campaign.
Ranieri’s tongue was increasingly wedged in his cheek but he under-promised and overdelivered to an extraordinary extent. Rodgers’ FA Cup win gives him a case to be ranked as Leicester’s second greatest ever manager, behind only the Italian, but he risks under-promising and still underdelivering.
A pessimistic prediction alone did not send Leicester spiralling downwards but, with 24 points from 26 games, City are on course for just 35. With five straight defeats, including the FA Cup, their momentum is downward. With the exceptions of Kasper Schmeichel and Wesley Fofana, Leicester own all the players who took them to fifth place and 66 points in 2020-21. Perhaps the second miracle of Leicester, the unwanted sequel to Ranieri’s improbable triumph, will be of how an arguably more gifted group contrived to get relegated.
It still feels unlikely but they are the club with the second fewest points at home and the third worst defensive record. The Leicester fans in the corner of the King Power Stadium calling for Rodgers to go are a minority, but they are becoming more vocal and their numbers are growing.
Logically, the fixture list offers salvation. Leicester have only one more meeting with current top-four sides and seven against the bottom half. Their considerable gifts – in particular, those of James Maddison and Harvey Barnes - give them the priceless ability to win matches but they are the most mercurial of sides, veering between lows and highs. They took one point from their first six league games but won four of five before the World Cup. They lost four in a row immediately after it, before taking seven points from three and then none from the next four. They have scored four goals in four different league games but seem unable to grind out a draw or a 1-0 victory.
All of which suggests Rodgers’ explanation for decline only tells part of the story. “You’ve had a host of clubs who have invested,” he said on Saturday. Leicester were not among them; they were the last club in Europe’s top five leagues to make a summer signing as their financial losses - £92.5m in the last year - and more straitened times for their owners combined. They had been the best of the rest, but then the rest started buying.
Yet their recruitment in recent years may reflect less well on Rodgers. There have been some encouraging signs from the January arrivals, from Harry Souttar and Victor Kristiansen, sadly now injured, even if Tete’s fine debut now looks deceptive. That belated summer arrival, Wout Faes, can be very good or very bad, but at least his best is excellent.
Yet an overly largely squad is a product of different kinds of mistakes. The £18m buy Jannik Vestergaard is now training alone, exiled after a critical interview. Ryan Bertrand has been injured, but if fit would probably be sixth-choice full-back. Patson Daka and Boubakary Soumare are yet to justify sizeable fees. The £30m Ayoze Perez has been loaned out and, after just 15 goals in 114 games for Leicester, is unlikely to play for City again. Torino were allowed to borrow Dennis Praet last season, an indication of his lack of impact. Bertrand was a free transfer, but the other five cost over £100m between them. Leicester have seen too little in return.
It feels as though they both misjudged the market last summer and suffered from a pan-European problem: there were too few clubs, especially on the continent, able to afford the kind of £15 or £20m deals for their squad players. Rodgers may have envisaged a window where perhaps eight players left to raise funds and four came in. There were no such takers for footballers like Praet, Perez and Vestergaard; only for the prize asset Fofana.
Meanwhile, Caglar Soyuncu, named in the PFA Team of the Year for 2019-20 and granted just 79 minutes this season, will leave on a free transfer. So, surely, will Youri Tielemans; instead of a £50m windfall, Leicester will get nothing. They have suffered twice, with Tielemans below his best this season and benched even before he was injured.
Amid a pattern of disappointment and decline, Wilfred Ndidi has also been dropped. Age has finally caught up with Jamie Vardy, scorer of a lone league goal. The valiant Maddison and Barnes feel ever more important.
Leicester have been luckless with injuries, which are a mitigating factor. Ricardo Pereira, James Justin and Jonny Evans have been sorely missed at times in defence, and the captain’s return to fitness now could assume an importance. Yet that defensive record stems from misjudgement as well as misfortune: Danny Ward, promoted when Schmeichel was sold, has the third worst save percentage in the division this season. Goalkeeping statistics – post-shot expected goals minus goals conceded – suggest he has cost 5.5 goals this season, the fourth most.
It is a reason Leicester have looked frayed and why they have no clean sheets since the World Cup. That, in turn, underlines questions. If Leicester can look an assortment of individuals, less than the sum of their considerable parts, Rodgers must configure a defence.
If this season has brought the definitive end for Leicester’s greatest generation, the title-winning team, with Schmeichel sold, Marc Albrighton loaned out and Vardy benched, the greater danger is that has a different kind of finality. Rodgers said last week that keeping Leicester up would be “one of my biggest achievements”. That would be overegging it. More accurately, taking them down would be his and their greatest failure.