‘Silence is a death sentence for a player’ – behind the scenes with Brendan Rodgers and his brilliant Leicester side
By Stuart James Nov 7, 2019 31
“Have you noticed the intensity when they lose it?” Brendan Rodgers asks as we watch Hamza Choudhury chase for a ball as if his life depends on it. “They want to win it back so quickly.”
A dozen players are taking part in a possession exercise under grey skies at Leicester City’s training ground. It is just after 11am and the rain, much like Choudhury’s pressing, is relentless. So is the rat-a-tat sound of passes. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,” shouts Adam Sadler, one of Leicester’s first-team coaches, as the ball fizzes around.
One point is awarded for 12 passes in succession. Another if the ball is threaded between two of the three mannequins that are stationed a short distance apart in the middle of an area about 40 yards square. The players want to win. Badly. Demarai Gray takes a whack and is down for a little while. There is no going through the motions here.
The idea for those in possession, Rodgers explains, is to circulate the ball quickly, aided by two goalkeepers on the outside, and to penetrate by “breaking the lines, to try and play through the bodies [the mannequins], so you play forward”. The outfield players are restricted to three touches, although they rarely take that many.
On the face of it, the drill is all about retaining the ball, which has always been a cornerstone of any team that Rodgers has managed.
Yet there is also a strong defensive theme to this exercise, and that is an essential part of Rodgers’ work at Leicester that is easy to overlook, especially when the team occupying third place in the Premier League is playing with a swagger and averaging more than two goals per game at the other end of the pitch.
Leicester have the joint-best defensive record in the Premier League this season. Indeed, they have conceded only 17 goals across Rodgers’ 21 league matches in charge, at an average of 0.8 per game. To put that figure in perspective, it stood at 1.5 per game when Claude Puel was manager.
It is a huge improvement and all the more impressive bearing in mind that Leicester sold Harry Maguire, who became the world’s most expensive defender, to Manchester United in the summer, and never signed a replacement. “I think people looked at us losing our £80 million defender and thought how were we going to cope,” Rodgers says. “But my answer is that you defend with 11, not just with one player.”
That collective approach to defending is a recurrent theme during the training session. Whenever the players are without the ball they are urged to regain it as soon as possible, by pressing in numbers. “You see when Dennis [Praet] is pressing now,” Rodgers points out, “Hamza is reading it behind.”
“Synchronised pressing” is the term that Rodgers uses in his office later, when he explains why Jamie Vardy has been told he no longer needs to chase down defenders from one side of the pitch to the other. “You cannot press on your own. The team has to have one brain,” Rodgers says. “If the winger is pressing the right-back, everyone has to understand where they move in relation to that. And if the ball gets played again, where’s the next press?”
In the drill, the players are also encouraged to protect the “central area”, by stopping passes from being fed between the mannequins. The exercise is relative to a game and brings to mind the interview that James Maddison did with The Athletic earlier in the season, when the midfielder explained how Rodgers will “have you pressing opponents, shifting, stopping passes through the lines, making it really difficult for teams. He addressed that early as something I needed to work on.”
Rodgers nods when told about those comments. “James is a bit like Philippe Coutinho — they’re players who are recognised for their talent. But then to maximise that talent, in order for them to participate in the game at the highest level, they also have to be able to contribute to a press. Of course, James has his strengths, so you let him flourish with those strengths. But then we helped him with the tactical discipline. And he’s becoming very, very good at it.”
Maddison is inside in the dry today, taking part in a recovery session along with the others who started in the 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Sunday. Rodgers spoke to each of those players individually before coming out to training to watch the rest of his first-team squad. He never misses a session. “I’m out here every day,” he says. “Every day.”
There is one significant difference in his approach now, however, compared to four or five years ago. “When I first moved into management, I took every session, planned every session, and then everyone fitted around that,” Rodgers says. “But what I’ve learned, in particular from probably the Liverpool experience, when I went away and reflected on that… and I remember Sir Alex [Ferguson] talking about this, saying that one of the greatest traits that you can have is observation. And that’s very difficult when you’re a young manager, when you’re starting out, because you’re trying to create the model.
“What I did at Celtic, after that experience at Liverpool, was I created the vision: ‘This is how we’re going to work, these are the standards we’ll be judged on.’ Create an environment, coach a lot — every day on the pitch to impose the way, and the principles of how we want to work — and then over time I can take a step back. And by that stage, any new coaches that I inherit when I come into a club, they understand clearly how I work.
“Then the guys like Chris Davies [his long-time assistant], who is very like me, very open-minded, understands my principles and how I work, can look at the sessions and they can plan and control. But I’m always there to observe and then look really at the details, and then of course in other moments I’ll take the tactical parts of the sessions. There’s no doubt that that’s been great for me, because sometimes when you are coaching and right in the middle of it, it’s hard to see everything.”
Kelechi Iheanacho, Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs, James Justin, Marc Albrighton, Nampalys Mendy, Daniel Amartey, Danny Ward, Eldin Jakupovic, Gray, Praet, and Choudhury are the 12 players training on this damp and cold morning. Davies, Sadler and Kolo Toure, another first-team coach, take the session.
Watching some of the slick exchanges, in particular the little one-twos in the unopposed passing exercises that are set up at the start, makes you think of that lovely goal that Vardy scored against Palace on Sunday. “That’s it, quick passes,” Rodgers says. “The idea is fast combinations, so they’re always in contact.”
Did that goal bring any wider satisfaction because of the way it came about? “For me as a coach and manager, seeing the relationship from training to the game is great,” Rodgers says. “My work is very much based on structure and improvisation, on a sliding scale. You give them the ideas but then that bit at the end is that real quality in the players that they can execute it. Vards’ touch and then Demarai’s pass back… he plays it soft so he can hit it first time; he hasn’t rattled it.”
Leicester’s training sessions are not particularly long — they last for about 70 minutes — but everything is done at a high tempo and no stone is left unturned when it comes to the level of detail in the session plans, which are discussed and finalised the day before.
For example, for the “build-up/attack” exercise that follows the possession game, the coaches know that the drill will last for 15 minutes, the exact measurements of the pitch used, the specific lines where the flat-spot markers will be positioned to cordon off a midfield area, the players who will be wearing bibs and the conditions that will be applied (three touches in your own half, all-in in the opposition half).
As well as breaking down the method, there are a list of “messages” that the coaches aim to get across during the exercise. In this case, one of the main focuses is on building securely from the back to get up the pitch by creating an overload using the “free man”. Positioning, angles and creating space are key for the three trying to break out from the back against two forwards.
Once one player is out, they join two attackers and try to score in a three-v-three at the other end. Once again, it is a case of replicating everything Leicester try to do in matches, especially when it comes to passing out from the goalkeeper.
“I’ve always seen build-up play as the opportunity, whereas lots of people and pundits see it as a risk,” Rodgers says. “It’s not a risk. If you open up the pitch and a team wants to come and press you, they’ve got to be open. So then it’s finding the space. The difference is, it’s not always the first line that you play into; it might be out to the full-backs in the second line, it might be in the space beyond. The opportunity to build is there. It’s having that range of pass and just giving them the lines of pass as options. Because no matter what anyone says to me, a long ball is a 50-50.”
The session finishes with a six-a-side that is played in an area the size of the penalty box. It is fast, intense and competitive — there are even disputes about whether a goal should have been disallowed for offside. All the while the emphasis on pressing, as well as passing, continues. “Go, Kel! Go!” Sadler shouts as Iheanacho closes down an opponent. “Now right behind him, Fuchsy.”
It takes place in a confined space for good reason. “So you have to manipulate the ball and use every line on the field to create space,” Rodgers explains. “But then you also want to take it in tight situations as well. For the attackers, we’re saying to Demarai to come off Wes and to find the space, because Wes will want the contact, because of his strength and power.”
Rodgers shows the way through to his office. There are a couple of tactics boards inside, one on the wall and a second on a stand. On another wall is a large whiteboard, scattered with small discs, almost like badges. Each one of them has a Leicester player’s face on it.
Although there is enough room for a small round table and half a dozen chairs, plus a desk and a computer, it seems safe to assume that the office Rodgers will move into at the club’s new training ground, which is due to open next year and will be one of the best in Europe, is going to be an upgrade.
Not that he is unhappy with what he has got now. Far from it, in fact. As we both pull up a chair, Rodgers tells a story about his office at Swansea City, which was at Glamorgan Health and Racquets club. Swansea didn’t have their own training ground at the time and shared changing facilities with the public. The room that Rodgers was given to hold private meetings in and make calls from was not much bigger than a broom cupboard.
“Around about mid-November, the leisure centre manager came up to me and said: ‘Brendan, will you be using the office — this area — on these dates in December?’” Rodgers recalls. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll need it all the time.’ He said: ‘It’s just that if you weren’t, we use this as Santa’s grotto.’”
Rodgers breaks into laughter. Before the Championship play-off final, which Swansea won 4-2 against Reading to win promotion to the Premier League in 2011, one of their team meetings took place in a squash court because the room they wanted to use upstairs at the leisure centre had been booked for a spin class. Rodgers smiles and shakes his head. “But Swansea was amazing,” he says. “That experience gave me everything.”
There is a knock on the door.
“Yeah?” Rodgers shouts.
“Dennis,” he says, his voice softening when he sees Praet’s face.
“Later?” Praet asks.
“Yeah, OK. But come in a minute,” Rodgers says.
“You’ve met before?” Rodgers asks as Praet comes over to shake hands. The two of us mention the interview we did six weeks ago.
“Did you see his first pass in the game at the weekend?” Rodgers asks, his face beaming. “He comes into the game, and this is the best first touch of a game that anyone can have. Did you see the chance of [Ben] Chilwell where he hit the post? Dennis has just come on, he’s looking for the pass, and he just drills it right out to the other side. Ben takes a touch and should score.”
Rodgers motions with his hand to show how the ball — a raking 40-yard diagonal pass from a free-kick that was inch perfect — pinged off Praet’s right boot.
Praet laughs. “He [Chilwell] made a long run. I said, ‘OK!’”
The two agree to chat in a bit and Praet leaves the room. Rodgers was expecting the Belgium international to drop by and he goes on to explain that Gray, who also came off the bench at Selhurst Park and made a telling contribution with that assist for Vardy, will do the same at some point. Regular dialogue with all the squad, he says, is essential.
“I like to be open with my players and have that communication,” Rodgers says. “I think what’s so important with players is that you’re clear. Clarity and purpose, I’ve found that so, so important in my management career as I’ve gone along, so that players are stable in terms of where they’re at. And the only way you do that is through conversation.
“Silence is a death sentence for a player. They’re unsure of where they stand and that can be difficult for players. Now, sometimes you’ll tell players things that they don’t want to hear. But I always think you can tell them anything; it’s how you say it to them. And rather than not talk to them and expect them to understand, it’s still important, even if the team is doing really well, that players who maybe are on the outside understand that they are very much valued and respected in their work.”
The conversation briefly returns to the training session, which finished with Rodgers walking off the pitch with his arm around Gray. I mention how Eddie Howe, Bournemouth’s manager, keeps “diaries” where he logs every training exercise. “I’ve got all my sessions from when I was a young coach, all archived at home,” Rodgers says. “So after each session we’ll…” His voice tails off as he gets up to look at a row of ring binders in the corner of the room. He picks one up, returns to the table and flicks through the sheets inside to find a tactical session.
“So, for example, this was 28th September, so before Newcastle, when we won 5-0. So we were looking at pressing organisation against their 3-4-3, who jumps to who, what zones we need to control, the compactness, and then being ready for the adjustment to 3-5-2. So that plan within.”
Pointing to a graphic showing a switch in play, Rodgers continues: “And then just adding [Fabian] Schar’s diagonal, because he’s good on them, so just being aware for the full-backs.
“Then you can see offensively how we’re going to build-up, what the long option is if we’re going to go over the press, expecting them to drop off into a 5-4-1, so how do we go through that.”
Finding a way of getting the ball to Vardy is often a good answer. Vardy got two goals that day against Newcastle and another five have followed since, taking him into double figures and making him the Premier League’s leading scorer. His form under Rodgers — 19 league goals in 21 appearances — has been sensational. It’s like a switch has been flicked.
“When I met the players when I first came in on the night of the Brighton game, I was walking around the changing room and shook all their hands. I saw him for the first time and said, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ Because he’s everything that I want in a striker. He’s such a threat. And people know it as well. You go away at Crystal Palace at the weekend and people know that if he’s away, it’s virtually going to be a goal. The gasp in the crowd anytime he nearly gets in… to have that threat is amazing.”
While Puel never really seemed to get to grips with how to play to the strengths of Vardy, who was even left out of the team on occasions by the Frenchman, Rodgers quickly found a solution. It is one that has some parallels with the way he sought to get the best out of Luis Suarez at Liverpool, namely by narrowing down the parts of the pitch he wants his striker to occupy. “With Vards it was a case of, ‘You’re pressing in certain areas, which is going to keep you closer to goal, and you’re then playing more in a central area.’”
It sounds like Rodgers wanted Vardy to be more economical with his running. “Yeah, doing essentially what we want him to do for the team,” he adds. “Because Jamie Vardy, if you let him go, he’ll press the right-back, the left-back, the whole back four on his own. But he now knows he’s not on his own when he’s pressing, and this allows him in turn to be in positions to score. And then we have a real creative talent that finds him early or finds him from crosses.”
Leaving aside that terrific second goal, two moments in particular against Palace stand out in respect of that creative talent Rodgers talks about. Maddison provided the first with a sublime pass with the outside of his right boot that released Vardy, playing on the shoulder of the last defender, in behind. Youri Tielemans delivered the second with one of those eye-of-the-needle through balls that many players wouldn’t see, let alone be able to execute.
It is some supply line with that pair operating alongside one another, and easy to imagine one or two of the established top six clubs looking on rather enviously. “James and Youri are very penetrative with their passing, and Dennis,” Rodgers says. “They play forward. We’ve got real technicians in there. You see James’s pass at the weekend, Youri’s pass playing through. And James’s pass away at Sheffield United. Having that view to see it, that immediate switch in the transition to play the pass, is incredible.”
Rodgers puffs out his cheeks as he thinks back to the wonderful ball that Maddison played with the outside of his foot at Bramall Lane for Vardy to open the scoring. Yet watch that goal again with Leicester’s pressing in mind, and the way that Ayoze Perez persistently snaps at the heels of Chris Basham, to pinch the ball inside the centre circle, really stands out too. Three Leicester touches later and Vardy is cupping his hands to his ears in front of the Sheffield United supporters.
For Rodgers, it is important also to recognise the contribution of those at the other end of the pitch for Leicester. He believes Kasper Schmeichel’s ability is often overlooked and describes him as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. As for Jonny Evans, Rodgers cannot speak highly enough of the central defender. He remembers seeing his countryman play superbly on his Premier League debut for Manchester United against Chelsea in 2008, and has been a fan ever since. “He’s got such a football brain. His experience and quality is of such a high level that whoever he plays beside, he will improve.”
The headline statistic is that Leicester have accumulated 40 points from 21 games under Rodgers, which is 10 more than arsenal over that same period, 17 more than Tottenham Hotspur and 19 more than Manchester United. Leicester’s goal difference across those fixtures is +27. United’s, by way of comparison, is -7.
Rodgers listens to those point tallies and, interestingly, his mind immediately goes back to Celtic, the club where he won seven trophies and was on course for another two before he decided to swap Glasgow for Leicester in February.
“Leaving Celtic was always going to be difficult for me because of my passion for the club, so I knew to leave there I had to come into something that was going to allow real growth,” he says. “When I had the chance to come here, for some it might have been a strange choice: ‘Why would you leave a huge club like Celtic to come to Leicester City?’ But for me, there was so much potential here and that starts with the players, and then with the club in general.”
Rodgers gave two presentations after taking over as manager. One, upstairs at the training ground, to the players and the football staff who are based at Belvoir Drive, and another at the King Power Stadium for all the other employees, essentially “explaining that we wanted to have one vision and one club”.
Yet the message ran deeper than that. “The club had had a dark time, in terms of the owner [Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha] passing away, and that had been hard for everyone, for Claude here at that time and for the players,” Rodgers explains. “So for me it was a case of coming in and trying to inspire the club and the players again, and to use Khun Vichai as a real shining light. Not to block his light. He’d given so much. The sadness around his death can very easily bring a real darkness among everyone and it’s very hard to shift that.
“What I tried to do when I came in was let that light shine again and then use that as a reference, so the vision that I wanted to create, but also the incredible legacy that this guy has given the club. And could we then hook on to his values, and what he gave, and transfer that into the team?”
Results and performance so far suggest so. Re-energised under Rodgers last season, Leicester have kicked on again in this campaign. They are behind only Liverpool and Manchester City in the table, through to the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup, and look a good bet for a top-four finish right now, even if Rodgers insists that qualifying for the Champions League has not crossed his mind for a second.
Leicester face arsenal, who are six points behind them, at the King Power Stadium on Saturday evening and it seems reasonable to ask whether the Northern Irishman would have been a far better replacement for Arsene Wenger than Unai Emery. At the very least, arsenal would have had a clear identity on the pitch under Rodgers.
Whether every arsenal fan would have warmed to that appointment at the time is a matter of debate. Rodgers, arguably, has never really had the respect he deserves for his coaching achievements and his capacity to improve players.
It is pointed out to him that a few weeks ago, Oliver Kay wrote an article for The Athletic, on the back of Leicester’s thumping victory over Newcastle, that started with the line: “Is it safe to praise Brendan Rodgers yet?”
Rodgers laughs as he listens to that question. But there is a serious point behind it, and it is interesting to know his thoughts on how he thinks he is perceived and if it is something that he even worries about.
“No,” Rodgers says, dismissively. “Listen, I only do my best. There obviously are now — in this society, in modern life with the internet — perceptions around you, but that’s normally from people who don’t know you. So you can never worry so much about that.
“I hope when I finish my career I’ll be respected as a coach, and people can judge me on being a coach, and what he did in terms of players’ improvement, teams’ improvement, supporters enjoying teams that I put out for them, and that is all I can ever worry about.
“I think that sometimes where there is a British coach or a British manager who has an ambition, maybe there is something that is not liked.
“But I always promise three things when I come into any club, with players and boards. I always promise my communication is open. I’ll give you quality in the work — I’ll be able to maximise your investment, improve and develop players. And I have ambition.
“But my ambition is always for the clubs that I go into to be the very best that they can be, for the players to be the very best. Of course you want to be the best. People talk about trophies and everything else, that’s great and it’s brilliant to be able to do that. But there are some coaches and managers who aren’t lucky enough to work with teams that give them the chance to do that. But that shouldn’t take away the level of coach that they are. So, for me, what’s the perception? I can’t really worry about that.”
There is certainly nothing to worry about when it comes to how Leicester supporters view him.
Some teams evolve when a new manager comes in. With Leicester under Rodgers it feels like there has been a revolution. They are unrecognisable from the team that was stumbling through games under Puel. On Sunday at Selhurst Park, there were even chants of “We’re gonna win the league” — something Leicester supporters had sung there in 2016, when they went on to do the unthinkable.
While few of those fans would genuinely believe a repeat is possible, it is clear that their team is in a really good place again. “I meet lots of supporters, not just Leicester supporters, and I think people enjoy watching our team play. There’s a real youthfulness around it, there’s an energy and a happiness in it,” Rodgers says.
“Leicester is a fantastic club. I think people look at Leicester as a club in the modern era that still has a real community feel. People know the owners. Top [Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, the chairman] is visible. Obviously with Khun Vichai, the sadness of that.
“And it’s a club where there’s a real strategy going forward. We move to a new training ground next year, and for us it was putting a strategy in place on the field that allows us to maximise the talents, make them better and look to create something. But also once you’ve done it, try to sustain it. I think for media and for supporters, it’s great they can enjoy it. But the job as the leader is to ensure that you stay focused.”
The visitors’ changing room during the half-time interval at St Mary’s last month provides an example of the driven, single-minded approach that Rodgers adopts. Leicester were 5-0 up with 45 minutes to play against a Southampton team who were down to 10 men and all but hoisting a white flag in the air. As a contest, the game was over. For Rodgers, it was only just getting started.
“I said to the players, now we’ve got to show that we’re developing on the way to being a really good team. Lesser teams will play loose, won’t be precise with their passing and will lack energy. So we’ve got to show what the top teams do, which is the hunger. So for me at half-time it was 0-0.”
By the end of the evening, Leicester had scored nine to equal the biggest ever Premier League win and record the biggest ever victory by an away side in an English top-flight match. It was brutal to watch. Southampton were humiliated, so much so that you wonder if Rodgers had any thoughts for opposite number Ralph Hasenhuttl.
“I don’t know him and I didn’t have the chance to speak to him afterwards. But of course I have empathy with every manager and especially in that situation, which is a really difficult one,” he says. “I sent Ralph a message after the weekend, before they played Manchester City. But, like I say, you’ve got to be professional.”
Time is ticking on and another knock at the door means that Gray, as well as Praet, is now waiting for his chat with the manager. We talk briefly about Liverpool and I ask whether Rodgers ever thinks about that 2013-14 season and just how close he came — three points — to ending that long wait for a title at Anfield.
“From time to time,” he says. “People will come up and talk about it. I think there was pride in the fact… if you look at the actual team and squad that we had at that time, to have nearly won the league — we jumped from eighth.
“But Liverpool was brilliant for me. It’s a great club. I learned many things when I was there. We went so close and it just wasn’t to be.”
In many ways, Celtic and now Leicester have been the beneficiaries of that Liverpool experience. Aged 46, Rodgers is older and wiser, no longer quite so hands-on when it comes to coaching but, as he has explained, better-placed than ever before to get the most out of his players and his team for taking that step back.
There is a chance for him, you sense, to achieve something special at Leicester. Maybe even to leave a legacy. “I think by the time I move on — and hopefully that won’t be for a while yet — the idea will be to have created a feeling,” Rodgers says.
“People talk about a legacy, and it’s always visual what they talk about. For me, it’s about what people feel. So with Celtic, for example, we won seven trophies and we created history there. And once they take away how I left, hopefully there’s a feeling of, ‘That was a very good team. I loved going to watch them play and how they played.’
“And for me here, it’s the same idea really. Hopefully there’s a feeling that the people are energised and inspired by watching the team.”
From The Athletic.
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