Le­ices­ter seek to flat­ten their dis­mal curve

With the city in lock­down, Rodgers wants his side to re­gain their im­pres­sive form

The Irish Times - - Sports - Paul Doyle

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.

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 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.

Men­tal prob­lem

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 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.

Weapon

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.”

– Guardian

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY

Jamie Vardy has scored in one match since Christ­mas, a sign of how Le­ices­ter’s form has tailed away.

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