Tuesday 12 November 2019

Rodgers' explosive start justifies his ambition and Foxes' big gamble

Brendan Rodgers. Photo: PA
Brendan Rodgers. Photo: PA

Sam Wallace

The challenge, as Brendan Rodgers sees it, for a club outside the elite such as Leicester City is to "drop a hand grenade in" to affect the established order of English football, and today he has a chance to test one of the most vulnerable parts of the establishment.

Rodgers is back in English football, and while the effect may not yet have been explosive, it is already disruptive.

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Just nine months at the King Power and Leicester are third in the Premier League, breaking goalscoring records at Southampton and playing the style of football that warrants five minutes of pundit admiration on 'Match of the Day'.

When Rodgers is also told at his media briefing that his team have made more tackles than any top-flight side in Europe, bar Metz in Ligue 1, his expression barely flickers. Maybe he already knows.

Today he faces Unai Emery, who is just six points worse off but in a different world when it comes to outside perception. Arsenal's manager is fighting for his future. Rodgers' stock could scarcely be higher. He is two years Emery's junior and there are similarities - no major playing career, a meteoric rise, big club jobs early.

The question most commonly being asked now is whether Arsenal made a mistake in the summer of last year by appointing Emery and overlooking the value in Rodgers that Leicester grasped in February.

In the summer of 2016 it was different. Emery's three Europa League titles at Sevilla earned him the Paris Saint-Germain job. That same summer Rodgers, sacked at Liverpool the previous October and generally out of favour, accepted the Celtic job.

Emery was sacked by PSG; Rodgers was a hero at Celtic but the level of job open to both in the Premier League tells you all you need to know about perceptions of them.

An "outstanding coach" is how Rodgers describes Emery. "If you get the opportunity to work with great players you have a greater chance to win trophies," he says, and on the whole he is reluctant to draw comparisons. It took a bit of persuading for the Leicester board, still recovering in the aftermath of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's death, to pay the salary it takes to get a coach of Rodgers' quality.

Along with the £8.5 million compensation to Celtic, it felt like a lot of money. Not anymore.

The club have had other successes too, outside of Rodgers' aegis, including the excellent recruitment department.

In the summer they wanted to buy James Tarkowski and were willing to spend £40m of the Harry Maguire sale on the Burnley centre-back.

But the price was too high so they put their faith in Caglar Soyuncu. He has turned out to be one of the league's break-out players.

The deal for Youri Tielemans was in place, too. Rodgers inherited a strong group of senior players, chief among them Jamie Vardy, who was disenchanted with Claude Puel and desperate for change.

Vardy is now the Premier League's top goalscorer. The captain from the title-winning side of 2016, Wes Morgan, has been retained as one of those strong influences. Those senior players, including Marc Albrighton, count for a lot.

The academy has yielded Ben Chilwell, Hamza Choudhury and Harvey Barnes and it is hoped the 20-year-old South African midfielder Khanya Leshabela will be next. Many of the pieces were there but it needed a coach capable of galvanising them quickly.

Has Rodgers already won his battle for acceptance? It seems unlikely that a manager this ambitious would ever settle. The challenge for a club outside the elite, he says, is to never stop fighting to break in and then see how far that fight takes them.

"You can't accept that it is the top six in terms of money and finance and you are always going to sit below it," he says.

That is when he mentions the hand grenade he intends to drop, and who knows where the aftershock might take his club, and him.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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