Brendan Rodgers’ reborn Leicester should not be overlooked in title race

Paul Doyle
Photograph: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

If Leicester beat Aston Villa on Sunday, it will be the first time they have won eight consecutive matches in the top flight. Winning at Villa Park will not be easy because Dean Smith’s team are better than their position in the Premier League table suggests. But then, so are Brendan Rodgers’s team. Leicester started the weekend as Liverpool’s closest pursuers but still not widely considered to be genuine challengers. Ridiculous.

Granted, if the title race remains a sprint, not a marathon, then no one will catch Liverpool this season. But if they slow down or stumble, which is entirely conceivable, then it is not only Manchester City who could overtake them. Leicester are serious runners and could close the gap substantially this month, especially with Liverpool due at the King Power on Boxing Day straight after returning from the World Club Championship in Qatar.

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It is almost absurd what Leicester are doing, attempting to put a perky twist on Samuel Beckett’s most famous quote. Win again. Win better. Three years ago they became the most sensational champions of the Premier League era and now here they are again with a chance of following up that feat, against superior opponents and with more pizzazz.

Consider, too, that it is just five years since the only previous time Leicester won eight league games in a row. That was in the Championship. Leicester have become a club who advance at pace. They reached their eight-in-a-row milestone last time by winning in Birmingham, and the scorer of the decisive goal was Jamie Vardy.

He and Kasper Schmeichel are the two Leicester players who featured in that match and are likely to start at Villa Park. Wes Morgan is still an important squad member, too. The enduring influence of those players, plus extras such as Marc Albrighton and Christian Fuchs, could be critical if Leicester are still in contention in the closing weeks of the season.

They, after all, have experience of winning the title. Unlike Liverpool, who will come under almost unbearable pressure as the prospect of ending 30 years of purgatory draws nearer. Rodgers knows that better than most.

His role in all this should not be underplayed. He has had some lucky breaks at Leicester and not in the way word of a release clause in his contract got out just when Arsenal started sniffing around, which hardly hurt him before he agreed a nice new deal on Friday.

There is also the fact Harry Maguire, whose departure to Manchester United in August was seen as a blow, is serving as a useful case study to any Leicester players who may be courted during the January transfer window, a parable showing that while there may be more money at other sides, the grass is not always greener. Most significantly, though, Rodgers inherited an excellent squad.

But he has done excellent work with that squad. It seems unthinkable that with these players Leicester lost more matches than they won last season. The most striking difference between now and then is the rise in their intensity. Rodgers has made them tighter, sharper and smarter.

Claude Puel began their transition from a counterattacking team to possession-based unit but did not understand his players well enough to see it through, leaving Leicester ponderous and prone to lapses in concentration. Vardy told L’Équipe in September that the team did not feel properly wired. “I felt the rhythm [of training] was too slow,” he said. “So much so that it was difficult for us to be fast and aggressive in matches. Everyone who plays sport knows that if you train one way, you cannot change radically when the competition starts. We tried our best but it wasn’t working, it was frustrating.”

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No more. Leicester pass and move with purpose now and, when out of possession, chase the ball voraciously. They have won more tackles than any other top-10 team in the league this season. Wilfred Ndidi, Caglar Soyuncu and Ricardo Pereira, in addition to being nifty with the ball, yearn for physical duels. But the movements are all coordinated, which is why Leicester have conceded fewer goals this season than any team in England’s top four divisions. And they are the only side not to concede a single goal from a set piece.

They have scored more late goals than anyone else, testament to their stamina, spirit and Rodgers’s ability to make effective tactical or personnel changes during games.

It is telling that in their past two matches Leicester have won without being at their best, with key contributions from substitutes. Kelechi Iheanacho struck in stoppage-time against Everton and James Maddison (not a substitute) scored late against Watford thanks to a burst by James Justin, who had replaced Harvey Barnes. Fuchs also performed well after stepping in for the injured Ben Chilwell. Dennis Praet and Demarai Gray were similarly influential after being introduced at Brighton three weeks ago. Leicester have greater strength in depth than many suppose and the capacity to reinforce in January.

There are critical matches to come before then, though. Leicester’s seven games between now and New Year’s Day include a pre-Christmas trip to Manchester City followed by the showdown with Liverpool, who have an important Champions League date on Tuesday before jetting off to Qatar after next Saturday’s game against Watford, now managed by that old Leicester favourite, Nigel Pearson. Leicester are focused fully on domestic action and should not be overlooked by anyone.