Brendan Rodgers’ anticipated return to English football ended in defeat as his new club Leicester lost 2-1 to Watford, his first managerial encounter with the side where it all began eleven years ago.
Watford had given Rodgers his managerial debut in 2008 and he spent a year with the Hornets before leaving for Reading the following summer amid circumstances that mirror his Celtic departure. After publicly reaffirming that his focus was strictly on the club, Rodgers was gone, forever souring his reputation among Watford fans. You could gather as much from the frosty reception he received.
Celtic fans can relate, after Rodgers swapped Scotland for England despite assuring the Bhoys that the Treble-Treble was very much the priority. It was an opportunity “too good to turn down,” Rodgers argued, and Leicester “would not have waited.”
It wasn’t the perfect start Rodgers would have wanted though, and he continued an undesired record of losing his first match in charge at each of the five English clubs he’s managed.
A Troy Deeney header put Watford ahead in the fifth minute – the Englishman deftly guiding a Gerard Deulofeu free-kick beyond Kasper Schmeichel – but Leicester remained calm.
Wilfried Ndidi nearly equalised when he hit the bar in the 75thminute, though Vardy did so only seconds later. The striker dinked a shot over Ben Foster after latching on to Youri Tielemans’ through pass.
The Hornets continued to pressure their opponents and capitalised on a poor Schmeichel goal-kick and Andre Gray, sent through one-on-one by Deeney, shot low under the Leicester keeper to snatch all three points in added time.
Nonetheless, there were positives to glean from this loss and plenty to be excited about as Rodgers begins to imprint his playing style on the club.
Laying the foundations
Set up in a 3-4-3 in attack, Leicester looked a Rodgers side from the very start. Despite falling behind early on, the Foxes were level-headed and composed in possession, never rushing and looking for the correct pass. Rodgers demands this from his sides and it’s encouraging that Leicester were able to respond so quickly.
Despite their rigidity of yesteryear – such as the title-winning 4-4-2 of 2015-16 and Claude Puel’s counter-attacking structure – Leicester were surprisingly fluent on the ball and demonstrated a clear appreciation of space and cohesion.
Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell pushed high and wide, and the three centre-backs were resilient against Deeney, Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra. Jonny Evans, in particular, ensured Abdoulaye Doucoure didn’t put Watford two ahead in the 23rd minute, nicking the ball away from his feet after Deeney’s low cross.
Ndidi was also important to this defensive effort, perhaps not something so closely associated with a Rodgers team. The midfielder sat in front of the back three – making three tackles, three interceptions and one block, while having the most touches of any player – and his tireless energy, coupled with accuracy on the ball, provided the platform for Leicester’s possession to yield anything substantial.
Enjoying 60% of the ball, the Foxes’ passing was purposeful and potential options were carefully measured before a decision was made. Even after going behind early on, Leicester stuck to their plan on the ball and remained patient and composed, trying to shift Watford out of position with cross-field diagonals into the wingbacks or short passing across the defence.
Panic didn’t creep into their game, nor were they rushed. “We worked our way into the game. Our passing was probably a bit slow in the first half, but after that, I thought we were excellent,” Rodgers said post-match. “Our possession was much quicker and Watford were getting deeper. From that, our confidence grew.”
Tielemans was central to this improvement, always showing for the ball and ensuring he was available to receive a pass, even under pressure.
The Belgian was crucial in recycling possession and building attacks, completing 85% of his passes – most of which were forward – across a range of lengths. He demonstrated why he’s so highly revered with a wonderfully weighted assist through the middle of the Watford defence to send Vardy in behind for the equaliser.
A work in progress
This is only Rodgers’ first game though, so it’s worth noting that this performance is by no means the finished product. Leicester made defensive mistakes, Schmeichel with the biggest of them all in the second minute of added time at the end of the game.
Miscuing his goal kick, Watford intercepted and Gray shot low under Schmeichel from Deeney’s subsequent through pass to make it 2-1. Although it was just a momentary lapse in concentration from a defensive unit that had played well throughout, it proved costly.
It wasn’t isolated either. Despite having a number of good passers in their squad, Leicester will need time to adjust to a possession-based system after years of playing the opposite way.
The trio of centre-backs at Rodgers’ disposal perhaps aren’t the best-suited to building play from the back, and it showed in the first half, for example, as a loose Harry Maguire pass put Evans under pressure with Leicester eventually losing possession.
Even James Maddison – who linked up well with Vardy and Harvey Barnes – nearly sent Deulofeu through with a poor cross-field pass on the half-hour mark. This is the peril of Rodgers’ system and mistakes such as these will understandably take time to eradicate.
Similarly – by Rodgers’ own admission in his post-match press conference – periods of Leicester’s possession lacked speed and penetration. The killer touch was missing.
“Our passing was probably a bit slow in the first half,” he said, acknowledging that the Foxes needed to be quicker on the ball. This was reflected in the fact that clear-cut opportunities were at a premium until Vardy’s goal, though Leicester did outshoot their opponents 14 to six over the course of the game.
Once the players get to grips with what Rodgers wants, however, caution will dissipate and confidence will replace tentativeness.
“There were lots of good elements to our play and it was very encouraging,” Rodgers enthused. We stayed together and stayed strong. We have a fantastic group of players who are very keen and want to learn.”
The challenge now is bringing consistency to Leicester, providing structure and focus to a team who continue to falter at the start and end of matches – Leicester have lost three Premier League games to 90th minute goals this season, more than any other side.
“We need to improve,” Rodgers added, “but there’s a lot of potential there.” Ending the season with consecutive games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, said potential needs to be realised rapidly.
Featured photograph/Oli Stein