Leicester are 12th in the Premier League at the time of speaking, with three games in hand over many of the teams around them. What have you made of what you have seen so far in 2022?
It has certainly improved from where they were at the start of the season and from where they were when they played Brentford last. Though the results didn’t really reflect it so much, they were really poor in the first few months of the season. They managed to make a few tweaks that got them a couple of wins around the Brentford game that they won, but it still felt like they were trying to get it to click and were short of where they have been in the past two seasons. Recently, there have been a few performances that would have looked at home in the past two seasons, particularly the 2-0 win at Burnley a few weeks ago. They were defensively solid – something they have not been for most of the season – they carried a threat on the attack and played the ball around with confidence. All of those factors in one performances have been few and far between this season. But they have been coming more regularly and that has helped them pick up a few more points in the Premier League. The defensively solidity has improved enough that, even if they don’t play particularly well, they are still able to get points, maybe because they have been able to have a settled backline; they have had so many injuries this season, but they have had so many injuries recently that they have just had to keep picking the same four defenders. It has been a slow improvement and the hope is that, over the final couple of months, they will be able to play at the level they did for the last few seasons and, hopefully, that will help them to finish in the top half. If they finish outside, I think that would be seen as a disappointment.
Even if they win those games in hand, as things stand, they wouldn’t move any higher than ninth. Is it just a case of finishing as high up the table as possible?
I think there has been a bit of an acceptance that European football might not be possible through the Premier League. There is quite a clear top eight at the moment and there’s a gap between Leicester and that group. With the games in hand, Leicester could finish ninth and if you look at their remaining fixtures, they do have the easiest fixture list, in terms of where their upcoming opponents are in the table, so they will be hoping to use that to their advantage. Depending on who wins the FA Cup, it could go down to seventh for European qualification, but I just think that is going to be too far out of reach for them.
Earlier this year, there was speculation in the media that Brendan Rodgers was under pressure in his job as manager. Do you think that was ever the case?
Leicester did reach a new low of his tenure, which was the 4-1 defeat to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. Their title defence ended in such humiliating circumstances against a local rivals they haven’t played for ages, in the division below, and it was just a really poor performance that lacked determination. But what I would say is that, in terms of job pressure, the league form was never quit bad enough, I don’t think. If you look at previous Leicester managerial departures, they always left when Leicester were in the bottom three in the eight-game form table, or a form table of some sort. Because they kept picking up results every now and then, they were only ever dropping as low as 12th or 13th. Under the previous manager, they went around six games without a win before he was sacked and, under Rodgers, the run was never quite that bad and the Forest game has proved to be a turning point. Inside the club, I don’t think there has been too much pressure. They appreciate the job that Rodgers has done over the past two seasons, in terms of the consistency he has managed to bring to the team. They appreciate the number of injuries they have had this season, particularly in defence, too. Rodgers himself as pointed out that they are at the end of a cycle – and we do hear of clubs going on three-year cycles and then needing a refresh. They have now hit three years since he joined the club and so maybe they need reinvigorating over the summer, few a few departures and a few arrivals.
Prior to the last meeting, you said Jamie Vardy was the one to watch, but who are you going for this time around?
Given his form, I would say Harvey Barnes. One of the key improvements since Leicester improved as a team, has been Barnes and particularly because Leicester have been able to get him on the ball more. Until he got his injury last February, which ruled him out for the rest of the season, he was their most threatening attacker in that he is so direct and quick that he is hard for teams to stop. He improved his finishing as well, so he was looking like he was going to get a goal or an assist in every single game. After two knee operations, he came back at the start of this season and, for a few months, it really didn’t work for him. But they have changed things around in midfield and brought in Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, who made his debut in the FA Cup game against Brentford at Griffin Park a few years ago. He has now come into the team and, because he is left footed, he is getting a lot of early balls to Harvey Barnes. He is now getting more and more opportunities to run at defenders and that is where he is at his best. In terms of getting Leicester on the front foot, he is the key. The two ways Leicester get the ball from midfield to attack is either Youri Tielemans playing the passes or Barnes running with win – and he has done a very good job of that of late.
How is Rodgers likely to setup his side at the King Power?
I think he will stick with a 4-3-3 system. They have changed the midfield to make it more defensive; I think one of the improvements he has made was the pressing higher up the pitch and the system has been more conducive to that. Along with that, there has been a change in personnel, so Marc Albrighton has been playing a lot recently because he offers the work rate further forward, and he has been playing on the right of a front three. Dewsbury-Hall has got the biggest set of lungs in the squad and he is really key in that he can get forward, press and close down the opposition, but he also has the energy to get back as well. He will play on the left of a midfield three. It is a tricky one because from November, James Maddison was, by far and away, the club’s most in-form player and in the best form of his career. Now, Leicester have picked a formation, where there isn’t really a space for him. In this three-man midfield, you have got Wilfried Ndidi at the base protecting the back four and then two box-to-box midfielders, so there isn’t really a No 10 spot for Maddison. Rodgers’ team selection really is about focusing on the team rather than getting the best individuals in it, at the moment.
Leicester won 2-1 in the reverse fixture in west London. What’s your score prediction for this one?
Firstly, I would say that Brentford were very unlucky in that game. I don’t think the scoreline was totally reflective of the game, particularly in the first half, when Brentford started really well. I think it’s going to be tough and I really like Brentford as a team, so I will say 1-1, with Leicester to score first and Brentford to get an equaliser.