Leicester have done well this season playing a certain way, but it looks like Brendan Rodgers is tinkering with the formula. Is he overthinking things?
If you’re of a certain mindset, the moment an hour before games when the teams are announced is thrilling in a sort of dweeby way. You pore over the line-ups, wondering in what formation they will be arranged and engage those closest to you in discussion about it. Sometimes, they might even respond.
Before Leicester’s Carabao Cup semi-final first-leg against Aston Villa on Wednesday, some eyebrows were raised as Brendan Rodgers named two left-backs in his starting XI. Eyebrows weren’t raised far – we’re not talking Carlo Ancelotti elevation here – but raised nonetheless. Various permutations were batted around, until it became clear that they would be playing three at the back, with Christian Fuchs as the left-sided central defender and Ben Chilwell as left wing-back.
What wasn’t quite so clear, was why. Leicester have played this system before, very recently and successfully in fact, in their last league game against Newcastle, which they won 3-0. But there was a degree more logic then because it seemed designed to allow for the absence of Jamie Vardy and allow them to play two up top: fine forward though Kelechi Iheanacho is, he doesn’t do quite the same things as Vardy, so altering things so he got a little more close support from Ayoze Perez made sense.
But with Vardy back in the team against Villa, and knowing they were going to face a side without a recognised centre-forward and who were unlikely to attack with any sort of overwhelming power, it seemed odd that Rodgers not only opted for that approach but stuck with it throughout.
Rodgers said after the game that it’s the players involved that really make the difference, and the formation is a relatively inconsequential element of it. Which is fair enough, but it does raise the question of whether Rodgers is overthinking things.
Up to this point in the season, Leicester have more or less succeeded by being something of a surprise package, and by being a relative underdog among the Premier League as a whole. That has changed over the last few weeks and months, and they can’t really get away with being plucky upstarts anymore: in this season at least, they are established as one of the best teams in the division.
People are now pretty clear on what Leicester do, so in that respect it’s understandable that their manager might be spooked into thinking that familiarity equals predictability. That could explain him playing around with the system, to make his side a little more difficult to anticipate.
But it does feel like a bit of an over-complication. Leicester have got to second in the Premier League by playing a certain way, which hasn’t really been ruthlessly exposed by anyone apart from Liverpool. Should there be a little more faith in the players and methods that have done well so far?
There are slight echoes of the way Pep Guardiola occasionally thinks himself into a problem in big games, rather than just trusting that his players are, in almost all cases, better than the opposition. Sometimes, football really is just a simple game.
There are mitigating factors: Youri Tielemans’s form has declined, and Wilfred Ndidi’s injury will be a blow, so perhaps those are reasons for shifting his formation. And perhaps this is overthinking an accusation of overthinking: this was only one game, and after the Villa game Rodgers admitted some tactical errors, even if that was more related to not picking Hamza Choudhury from the start.
But Rodgers has always been keen that everyone knows thinks about the game. The mind goes back to his last full season at Liverpool: the campaign began pretty badly, then Rodgers made a tactical switch and they went on a terrific run of form. Then, shortly before a game against Manchester United in March 2015, a series of extremely well-sourced articles appeared in various papers explaining how Rodgers had fixed the problem in a late-night moment of inspiration over tea and toast.
That was the game in which Steven Gerrard got sent off after 38 seconds. Liverpool lost that game 2-1, the next against Arsenal 4-1, won only two of the last nine games of the season and Rodgers was sacked in the following October.
All of which is obviously not to say that Rodgers is heading for the chop now. But rather to illustrate that he enjoys the appearance of the process, as well as the results of the process.
Maybe this was just a brief tactical misstep. Maybe I’m reading too much into a brief alteration in one game. But it feels like an early sign of a manager in danger of second-guessing himself.
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