Most of the discussion following Brighton & Hove Albion’s 2-1 defeat by Leicester City on Saturday centred on the home team’s worrying slide towards the relegation zone. Understandable, particularly after Fulham’s victory at Anfield left the Seagulls above the dreaded dotted line on goal difference alone. But this was also a significant result for Leicester, who are looking to avoid a repeat of their late-season collapse in 2019/20.
After 26 games last term, Brendan Rodgers’ side were sitting pretty in third place. They had just drawn back-to-back matches with Chelsea and Wolves, and had a healthy 10-point cushion above Tottenham Hotspur in fifth. Champions League football looked to be on its way back to the King Power Stadium.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the case. Leicester won only three of their last 13 fixtures last season and dropped out of the top four, their collapse coming with a 3-0 loss to Tottenham on the penultimate weekend and a 2-0 defeat by Manchester United on the final day, which confirmed their absence from Europe’s premier competition.
Leicester lost to Norwich City and Bournemouth, two of the three relegated teams, during the run-in. They also dropped points against Watford, the third side to succumb to the drop. It is true that a fifth-place finish would have been seen as an excellent achievement in the summer of 2019, but that did not shake the sense of disappointment around the club having dropped out of the Champions League spots so late in the campaign.
It is to Rodgers and his players’ credit that Leicester did not suffer a hangover from that collapse at the start of this season. They won each of their first three games, and rose to the summit of the standings by beating Wolves in their eighth outing. They have been in the top four after every round of fixtures since the opening weekend. Plenty can happen between now and the end of the campaign, and Chelsea and West Ham show no signs of easing off, but Leicester are in a promising position with 10 games to play.
Rodgers has demonstrated his adaptability this term. He has used back threes and back fours. He has played with a No.10 and without one. He has played with a lone striker and two up top. His success has even led to calls for Rodgers to be the next Tottenham manager.
The Northern Irishman was once the Premier League’s foremost fundamentalist. His Swansea City side never compromised on their possession-based principles. Rodgers insisted he would not change, even after defeats.
Yet as time went on, he became more flexible. At Liverpool in 2013/14 he unleashed Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge on the counter-attack – and almost won the title. After a spell at Celtic in which his teams invariably played on the front foot against weaker domestic opposition, he has mixed things up at Leicester. The Foxes are primarily a possession-based team but they also utilise their pace on the break. The 5-2 thrashing of Manchester City in September was a masterclass in sitting deep and surging forward in transition.
“It has taken me 13 years to play that way – I’m very much about attacking and being aggressive,” Rodgers said after that game. “I always try to be positive but I need to think of other ways to get results in these games.”
With Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, Ayoze Perez, James Justin and Dennis Praet among those on the treatment table, Rodgers has had to adapt again in recent weeks. Kelechi Iheanacho has been brought in to partner Jamie Vardy up front in a 3-4-1-2 formation, and has responded with two goals in three games. It was the Nigerian who notched the all-important equaliser against Brighton last time out.
Rodgers deserves great credit for his flexibility and tactical intelligence and remains one of the manager of the year contenders. However, with the Leicester injury crisis unlikely to ease any time soon, the manager will have to continue finding solutions to keep his team in the top four and avoid another disappointing collapse.