Leicester seek to flatten dismal curve and end on a high
With the city in lockdown, Brendan Rodgers wants his side to regain their impressive form
Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy in action against Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey during their 0-0 draw in Leicester. Photograph: EPA
While the rest of England edges closer to normality today, lockdown has been reimposed on Leicester this week owing to a rise in coronavirus infections. The city has more serious concerns than its football team’s sputtering form.
Still, supporters will hope for whatever relief they can bring when the side host Crystal Palace with the match allowed to go ahead at the King Power Stadium today. “I’ve seen a noticeable difference in the city and that’s a huge credit to the people of Leicester,” said Brendan Rodgers of the latest lockdown.
“You can sense that the city is doing everything they possibly can to adhere to what the government has asked. As for the football, we’re in a bubble and there are no worries. We have an opportunity to make people’s lives a little better by getting a good result and we’ll try to do that.”
In terms of their Premier League campaign, Leicester need a win. They are in a better position than anyone foresaw at the start of the season but are falling while others are climbing. Anticlimax looms unless they regain their upward mobility fast.
There is no single reason why a position of great promise has turned into a predicament. Several factors have gnawed at a team that seemed carefree.
In December, Leicester were Liverpool’s closest challengers at the top and winning continuously. A fine-tuned Jamie Vardy could not stop scoring, young buds were blooming and Rodgers was handed a new contract 10 months after his arrival with reports that Arsenal were interested in his services.
The way Leicester were playing suggested they were ahead of schedule in their ambition to develop into a more versatile side than the sensational 2016 title winners. Champions League qualification looked almost certain.
Then the unravelling began. After winning 17 of their first 26 league matches under Rodgers, Leicester have won five of 17 since his new deal. Vardy has scored in one match since Christmas. The team’s verve has faded. Their first-half display in the 2-1 defeat at Everton on Wednesday was their worst of the season.
The gap between Leicester and fifth place – once 15 points – is down to three. A cushion has become a bed of nails. Leicester look anything but comfortable.
Partly this is a mental problem. When Leicester were at their best this season they were “ruthlessly simple”, to use the description given by Rodgers when asked about the 9-0 humiliation of Southampton in October. He did not mean the win was easy; he meant his players fizzed with a clarity of purpose, everyone seemed in sync, their every touch looking like the expression of an instinctive, intricate choreography and a joyful lust to conquer.
Now there is doubt. Players have grown tentative as if second guessing themselves, their confidence first pierced by back-to-back beatings by Manchester City and Liverpool in December.
Gifted young players have since shown they are not yet consistent, especially Youri Tielemans, Demarai Gray and Harvey Barnes, but also Ben Chilwell and even James Maddison.
Finishing has become erratic and the service and support to Vardy has dried up; too often the striker has had to fight a whole defence by himself in an effort to connect with a hopeful cross.
“With a team with a lot of young players there are going to be periods where you lose a little confidence, or have a bit of fear,” says Rodgers.
He has tried various solutions since the season’s resumption to spark a revival. At times, though, it looked like he, too, was overthinking things, such as in the last home league match, a 0-0 draw with Brighton, who were the more fluent.
Other, more tangible causes have exacerbated the drop-off. Leicester’s squad is small. That is why only three Premier League managers have made fewer substitutions than Rodgers this season. Leicester were not able to compensate for the loss of their two most solid performers – Wilfried Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira – at key points. They won one of the five league matches Ndidi missed because of injury in January and February. Since his return Ndidi has not been his usual authoritative self.
The loss of Pereira, written off for the season after damaging a knee in March, has also hit Leicester hard. His inexperienced replacement, James Justin, is not, or not yet, as influential as Pereira, especially when it comes to augmenting the attack. Pereira’s bursts down the right were a weapon few defences could withstand. They also covered the fact that the right of Leicester’s forward line is the one position where they have never found an outstanding performer: Gray and Ayoze Pérez have flickered and Kelechi Iheanacho is more effective in the centre.
There is no need for regime change. The system is not failing. But small things that were going well are now going wrong. And at the wrong time, too, with Manchester United and Wolves joining Chelsea in trying to hunt Leicester down.
“We’re a fraction away from where we want to be,” says Rodgers. “We accept collectively that this is an adverse moment. The challenge for us is to come through that. If we’re talking spirit, honesty, character and mentality, then this group will be okay. They’re first-class to work with. We’re still in a brilliant position, which our talent has taken us into.
“Being in this position has been new to a lot of players, so there is this emphasis on mentality and that’s key. It’s about developing a mindset. That doesn’t happen overnight. But if you’ve got teams breathing down your neck, that really sharpens the focus.
“It’s going to be a great finish. It’s just going to take one moment to kickstart results. Hopefully we can start that against Palace.”