When Arsenal were looking for a new manager a little over a year ago, they considered a play for Brendan Rodgers.
‘It was a bit of a flirt, really,’ revealed one source close to him this week. ‘No more than that, but it was definitely there.’ Leicester did not mess around. Within days their manager had signed a new five-year contract and Arsenal hired Mikel Arteta.
Six months earlier, Leicester had been mulling over a move for a young full back at Luton Town. His name was James Justin. Other Premier League clubs had looked but were not sure.
Foxes manager Brendan Rodgers has done an excellent job with title challengers Leicester
At the time of writing Leicester are third in the Premier League, two points off first position
‘The consensus was that he wasn’t quite good enough with the ball,’ one scout from a London club told Sportsmail.
While other clubs shuffled their feet, Leicester paid £8million for him. It seemed a lot then but it doesn’t now. The 22-year-old has started every Premier League game this season and is now valued at more than £15m.
So welcome to the modern Leicester City: Driven, ambitious, decisive. When they won the Premier League under Claudio Ranieri five years ago, Leicester were outliers. That is what made them so loveable.
Now they are not that. Now they are a top Premier League club, on and off the field, and that is very different. Ahead of Sunday’s home game against Leeds, they are two points off the top and ahead of Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arteta’s Arsenal. The beauty is that it no longer feels like a surprise.
‘The challenge is to become a recognised top-four club,’ said Rodgers recently.
The Northern Irishman is key. When he was hired in February 2019 he was given a straightforward brief: to play possession-based football and match Leicester’s progress off the field with tangible success on it. So far the two have run side by side.
Leicester have just moved into a new 185-acre training ground and have plans to expand the King Power Stadium’s 32,000 capacity by 30 per cent. Rodgers’ team, meanwhile, are in the European places and one of English football’s must-watch sides.
Looking back to Rodgers’ arrival, it was a big call from both parties. Rodgers left Celtic mid-season to come. But they look increasingly suited.
One associate of the 48–year-old describes how, to Rodgers, everyone has an imaginary sticker on their forehead saying, ‘Please smile at me’. Leicester work a little that way, too.
‘They are great with their players,’ one top agent said this week. ‘If a player does well, they know they won’t need to chase a new contract. The club will come to them. Some clubs you work with, it’s tortuous. Not Leicester. They just get on the front foot.’
At Leicester’s new training ground, there are 14 pitches. It’s a far cry from the days when Rodgers’ office at Swansea used to double as a Santa’s grotto at Christmas.
Rodgers has come a long way since his days in south Wales and if it feels as though his football journey still has some way to run, then the same could be said of his club.
The manager said recently that he would like his legacy to be about how he made people feel. He was always a coach first and foremost, someone who thrived on improving players. But there is no such thing as an absolute football purist. Everyone wants to win and Rodgers will hope the two things come hand in hand.
James Justin (right) has played every Premier League match this season and performed well
By his admission, he has changed a little since his days at Swansea and Liverpool. ‘I am still out there on the grass every day,’ he says, and that’s true. But he has also heeded advice once given by Sir Alex Ferguson and delegates much more these days. ‘The players can see too much of you,’ Ferguson once opined.
So the vision remains Rodgers’ but it is often left to coaches such as his long-standing assistant Chris Davies to implement. Training sessions rarely stretch beyond 70 minutes.
A basic tactical framework is built and players are urged to improvise on top. What remains fundamental and unchanged about the Rodgers creed is communication and management of individuals.
‘Silence is a death sentence for a football player,’ he said in an interview with The Athletic. He is not afraid to get close. It is not unusual to see him cue in hand at the players’ pool table.
With all this in mind, improvement in Leicester’s players can be viewed right throughout the squad. Justin, Harvey Barnes (‘I just have to make him angry’), James Maddison and even a veteran such as defender Jonny Evans are all better players for the Rodgers touch.
Meanwhile, the return to prominence of title winner Marc Albrighton in recent weeks has been marked. ‘He is a soldier,’ said Rodgers. ‘He typifies everything we want.’
Talismanic striker Jamie Vardy has had the Midas touch in front of goal for Rodgers’ outfit
None of this works without good recruitment, of course. Ranieri’s title win was constructed around N’Golo Kante, Albrighton, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. The long-departed Steve Walsh was credited with much of that, but continuity has remained in the form of director of football John Rudkin, at the club since 2003.
Rudkin now works with Lee Congerton, once of Celtic and Sunderland, and Leicester’s head of senior recruitment since May 2019. Rodgers said last season that he is happy to work with the players ‘provided for me’.
Having learned a painful lesson after butting heads with the Liverpool transfer committee towards the end of his time at Anfield, he says he accepts the buying and selling of players is not in the manager’s remit in the modern game.
The truth, of course, is more nuanced. Rodgers and Congerton worked together at Celtic and also at Chelsea, back in the day, and it’s inconceivable to think the manager does not have input. Whatever the truth, Leicester’s system works.
Of the current team, Youri Tielemans and Maddison were in place before Rodgers arrived. Both have subsequently increased in value.
All the noise now is about Justin and 20-year-old French central defender Wesley Fofana, purchased from Saint-Etienne last October. There are others, too, such as Belgium defender Timothy Castagne.
Belgium defender Timothy Castagne (left) has also proved a shrewd purchase from Atalanta
It has been the identification and assimilation of these players that has allowed Leicester to weather the sale of Kante, Mahrez, Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell and move forward.
No team is ever complete of course and ideally Rodgers would have bolstered his squad this month. Arguably, it was a lack of depth that cost them the top-four finish that had looked theirs for much of last season.
The £100m spent on the training ground and the impact of Covid have taken a toll. But as he said after the sale of Maguire to Manchester United: ‘You defend with 11 players, not one.’
How can you discuss Leicester City without talking about Jamie Vardy? You can’t.
Last season’s Premier League Golden Boot winner will miss a couple of games now after hernia surgery and remains fundamental to just about everything Leicester do. Interestingly, the key to the 34-year-old’s longevity has been Rodgers’ insistence that he should work less hard.
‘He has told Jamie to chase fewer lost causes, not to drop too deep,’ said a source close to the player. ‘He wants him on the shoulder of the last defender, terrifying people.’ Vardy’s threat remains real. He has scored 11 league goals this season and his conversion rate remains high.
Leicester are arguably more cultured with Rodgers than under Ranieri. ‘To me, a long ball is always a 50-50,’ he has said. Importantly, though, they remain just as deadly. A quirk of Rodgers’ team is that they sit only 10th for attempted shots this season – even behind struggling Brighton – but are third in terms of goals per shots.
It will be interesting to see how Leicester get on in Vardy’s absence. Rodgers does not have a natural replacement and if there is a weakness in his squad then that is it. They were the better side at Everton on Wednesday but they did not win.
Rodgers wants more ruthlessness. When his players were asked to fill out forms identifying why they had slipped out of the top four at the end of last season, the lack of a killer edge was an ingredient that was highlighted.
Their manager had been on to it for some time, mind. At half-time at St Mary’s Stadium last season, with Leicester 5-0 up against Southampton, Rodgers told his team not to slacken off. ‘Don’t be loose,’ he said. ‘Be a top team.’
Leicester went on to score nine that night and Rodgers’ pursuit of the next level remains.
Still relatively a young man in coaching terms, it is unlikely Arsenal will be the last big club to have his name on their list. But Rodgers is paid well and the buy-out sum in his contract is high. Yet again Leicester, it seems, are one step ahead.