Leicester are one fine summer from a Champions League squad

Date published: Wednesday 22nd May 2019 8:23

“Young players will run through a barbed wire fence for you,” said Brendan Rodgers in August 2012. “Older players will look for the hole or just turn back and not even go through it. But you get that freshness from Raheem. I like exciting players as well and he is a boy that excites you.”

Perhaps Manchester City saw something in Sterling two days earlier, an impulse they would act on three years later. The 17-year-old had been part of a Liverpool side – their youngest Premier League starting XI since December 2003 – that was unfortunate to draw 2-2 with the reigning champions. The fine work of Martin Kelly (22), Joe Allen (22), Sebastian Coates (21) and Fabio Borini (21) had been undone by the predictable fallibility of a 27-year-old Martin Skrtel.

Rodgers was unsurprisingly undeterred. “One of the things that I think I have specialised in is the management of top young players,” he added like a sentient LinkedIn profile. “This might be a good opportunity for them. Because we don’t have the money that some of our rivals have, we want to develop what this club has had for many years and develop top young players.”

Liverpool had finished eighth the previous season, earning 52 points under Kenny Dalglish. With Rodgers guiding Leicester to the same tally this campaign – albeit in ninth place – his remit has hardly changed.

Claude Puel has bequeathed him a wonderful squad, one Leicester might well argue is better than Chelsea’s, Arsenal’s or Manchester United’s. They have a full-back pairing everyone but Liverpool should envy, a centre-half being touted to Manchester City for more than £75m, the highest tackler and third-most creative player in Europe, and the Premier League’s fifth-top goalscorer. If Rodgers is precisely the sort of manager – or human – who would describe himself as an artist, he has inherited the perfect canvas and a gloriously well-balanced palette.

And the Northern Irishman has painted a pretty picture thus far. Leicester are one of two teams who took points off Liverpool at Anfield, one of two teams who took points off both Liverpool and Manchester City, and the only visiting team to win at Stamford Bridge this season. A Premier League table since Rodgers was appointed has the Foxes in fifth, with only the top two winning more games.

This is new ground for Leicester. Their phenomenal title win will never be repeated or surpassed, but they have made a mockery of those who feared what would come after the Lord Mayor’s show. Just because they will never again fly so close to the sun does not mean they must reside in the shadows for eternity.

It was a remarkable achievement but one built on quicksand. There was nothing sustainable about Claudio Ranieri’s band of merry, pizza-eating men, a side that thrived on camaraderie and togetherness to capitalise on an unprecedented level of collective elite failure.

But this feels different, like taking a ladder a step at a time instead of leaping to the top and risking a subsequent fall. The foundations are solid, the progress steady but sensible and supportable. Leicester had not finished ninth or higher in consecutive top-flight seasons since 1967. They had ten of their players named in squads at the 2018 World Cup, having had just 12 selected in the previous 20 tournaments combined. The world’s greatest hangover has cleared and while Ranieri and Puel could not see through the haze, Rodgers has reminded these players, these fans and this club how to enjoy itself once again.

The test will be this summer – and it might take the single-minded determination of a self-assured optimist to break an outdated cycle. Since Esteban Cambiasso left in 2015, Leicester have sold one of their best players in every summer transfer window. N’Golo Kante followed in 2016, then Danny Drinkwater in 2017 and finally Riyad Mahrez last year.

Some might even argue that the loss of Lloyd Dyer, who rejected the offer of a new contract in 2014 after playing a vital role in their Championship promotion, started this vicious circle of constant reconstruction. That Leicester have managed to strike the balance without collapsing, replacing the seemingly irreplaceable every 12 months through a combination of supreme scouting and sheer luck, does not mean they should take the gamble again.

Rodgers can look upon a squad featuring Ricardo Pereira, Harry Maguire, Ben Chilwell, Wilfred Ndidi, Hamza Choudhury, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes with excitement instead of trepidation. These are players that are desperate to learn instead of leave. And this is a manager keen to teach them, to further both their and his development.

Now is the time for evolution over revolution. The permanent signing of Youri Tielemans, the ruthless upgrade of Kasper Schmeichel and the addition of a worthy alternative to Jamie Vardy would leave Leicester with a Champions League-standard squad. These are finishing touches, not drastic, unrealistic measures.

But the key will be to retain what they already have. “Our plan is to keep the players we have and then add some more quality,” Rodgers said earlier this month, and they did not feel like empty words. This is a club with a plan and a leader capable of carrying it out.

As Rodgers himself once said: “The problem with being a manager is its like trying to build an aircraft while it is flying.” It was an apt thing to say as Liverpool manager, taking a team from eighth to second in two seasons, then down to tenth by the time he was sacked. It is a perfect description of his brief to establish Leicester as a genuine force.

They are abundant with the young players he specialises in, but also blessed with experience in Vardy, Wes Morgan, Marc Albrighton and Jonny Evans. If he can succeed where his predecessors failed in persuading them to run through a long series of fences, Leicester can continue to look up instead of down.

Wolves are the natural leading candidates to shatter the glass ceiling to the top six, but Nuno is learning on the job and must cope with the addition of Europa League football next season. Leicester and Rodgers have both been here before, and are primed to catch lightning in a bottle if and when it strikes twice.

Matt Stead


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