Sunday morning, 23rd January. Leicester City fans woke up as normal ahead of their 2pm home fixture against Brighton & Hove Albion. Thoughts normally turn to thinking about team selection, what time to meet friends, what pub to have a pre-match drink in.
That morning, Leicester fans were confronted with headlines from a Sunday newspaper, after their manager Brendan Rodgers had spoken with one of the reporters there. The headlines spoke of their fifth placed finishes being the pinnacle for Leicester City. So instead of looking forward to the game, and heading off feeling optimistic, a vast majority of fans left feeling very hacked off with their manager. So why did he say it? What’s Brendan playing at?
Well for starters, it’s worth remembering the context of those words. Leicester are currently mid-table in the Premier League, have gone out to Liverpool in the League Cup Quarter-Finals after being ahead against a very youthful opposition team with only minutes left. They have also been dumped out of the Europa League and into the new Conference, having somewhat underachieved given the group they were facing. This follows Leicester finishing fifth for the last two seasons in the league, and winning the FA Cup last season in memorable fashion at Wembley. Combine that with a shiny, new, £100 million training facility, but frustration at a lack of January signings, and it is easy to see why the natives are beginning to get restless.
It is therefore understandable why Brendan has said what he has, he clearly wants to manage expectations and control the narrative accordingly. There are few smarter managers than Brendan Rodgers in the Premier League at using the media and managing his own PR by doing so. However, the risk is this time, he has simply enraged fans even further, and possibly upper management at the club. This at a time, when the balance of opinion is possibly going away from him amongst the fanbase, with more and more supporters questioning whether Brendan is the right man in charge
It is here that lies the conundrum that the Foxes find themselves in. Leicester City are a club that are possibly having an identity crisis at this current time. They went through the same process in the season after the fairy tale title winning season of 2015/16, where they ended up having a poor season. That year saw the same title winning manager Claudio Ranieri sacked in February 2017, after a string of poor results, questionable recruitment, with rumours of player unrest to boot. In the aftermath of winning the league, Leicester never quite understood where they were as a club, and what they should then be aiming for. Was it another title charge? Top six? Top ten? Remember this is at a club where they had narrowly avoided relegation with The Great Escape in 2015. It took Leicester two years to understand that being best of the rest outside the top six was probably a legitimate target to aim for, and start building accordingly towards it.
Leicester are now in a similar position, after those consecutive fifth placed finishes and FA Cup victory. Both fans and the club itself are now trying to work out where the club is at. Are they are a top six team now? Should they be competing for trophies? Leicester themselves as a club do not know this, and it now shows in this season’s frustration, and their recruitment decisions. You then add in Leicester’s ambition to be a self-sufficient club financially, who don’t rely on the billionaire ownership of the King Power Group and it further explains why the Foxes find themselves in such a bind.
Some of the blame for raised expectations has to rest at Brendan’s door. When results were going well and Leicester were consistently in the top four, he was only too happy to tell supporters to dream big, and that they should get used to being disrupters. Like the salesman that he is, when Rodgers has a story to tell, he was very much leading the charge in telling it. With results going the other way, to now hear him suggest that a top five finish was the pinnacle for the club, seems more like a manager covering his own back rather than talk honestly. Supporters of a football club are not daft, they know when they are being played. More and more Leicester supporters are getting the impression that Rodgers is just spinning them a line to cover his own back rather than actually give a true appraisal of where the club is at.
What has really grated Leicester fans is the salary that Rodgers is on. Rodgers is reportedly on a yearly salary of £10 million per year, which would put him amongst the top four or five paid managers in the league. If you pay a manager a salary like that, that comes with certain conditions and expectations in itself. You simply do not pay a manager that level of salary just to come mid-table. Leicester fans as a whole do not have a problem with finishing middle of the table. Where it really grates is that we have a manager being paid £10 million to do so. If mid-table is the goal, that is fine, but there are managers available who could deliver that but on half that salary. It is hard to argue that currently, Rodgers is proving to be good value for money, especially with his recent comments that fifth placed finish are pinnacles. If that is the case, many Leicester fans are justified in asking that Rodgers takes a dramatic pay cut to reflect that.
In fairness to Rodgers, and to the club themselves, Leicester’s cause is not helped by the budget constraints that he, as manager, is under. Leicester do not have the financial firepower of the top six, and as mentioned, want to remain in a solid position financially. Some fans want their cake to likewise eat it. They want the club to be top six disrupters yet not pay for it. They want the club to be matching the top six’s results on the pitch, but for the club to still return a profit at the end of the year. Demonstrably, for a club like Leicester that is extraordinarily difficult to do. What the club has been able to do since Rodgers has joined the club has been hugely impressive, and quite rightly they have been lauded for it.
Which leads me on to the next point. What Brendan has said probably is not wrong. Leicester have probably overachieved somewhat, given their revenue puts them about mid-table of the 20 Premier League teams, and the budget that leads on from that. Added in to the mix, their business model relies on them selling a star name each summer to fund any new purchases. It is probably fair to say that Leicester are not, and will not be a true top six club like the others. They will always have to punch above their weight to finish there. But it is one thing for the club’s manager to think that, it is another thing to actually say it, especially as mentioned he has had previous of telling everyone to dream big. It feels somewhat a slap in the face of supporters to state that the club have overachieved, when the team he manages has shown that they are capable of being at a higher level.
Added to which, the club are still in discussions with key-midfielder Youri Tielemens for a new contract. Tielemens is a hugely ambitious and talented player, coveted by clubs across Europe including the attentions of some of the big clubs. It is one thing to not be the top offer in terms of the wages on the table, but to then combine that with words of scaling back ambition, are hardly the selling points that a player like Youri wants to hear when deciding his future. Neither does it help the club when trying to attract new players to the club. If Leicester are not the biggest spenders around, it is even harder to bring in new players when you are in competition for their signature, if you’re also not matching their ambitions on the pitch. Again, whilst Rodgers is not wrong in what he said, to have actually come out with them in public feels a wrong move, and one of a man feeling the pressure.
In fairness to Rodgers, Leicester more than most have suffered from injuries to key players. To have had two or three of your first choice defence long-term injured is bad luck. To then throw into the mix injuries to Vardy, Barnes and others, plus having players missing due to the African Cup Of Nations and it’s easy to feel sympathy for his plight. It may be fair to say that Leicester have done well considering their injury problems they have had to contend with. That sympathy is then tempered somewhat with the signings made last summer. Ryan Bertrand, whilst signed with valid reasons, just has not worked out at all. Jannik Vestergaard, who was a surprising call at the time, is another that just has not worked out well for the club. Whilst all the blame cannot be laid at Rodgers’ door for those, he still will have had final sign off on them both. The removal of the physio team that had been so successful previously, under his watch, also undermines any argument that injuries have totally stunted Leicester this season.
Overall, Leicester’s are facing numerous challenges, some of which their manager can help fix, and some which he cannot. They are also a club in flux, that are trying to find their identity under the intense spotlight of the Premier League. They are also a club trying to square the circle of being top six disruptors year-on-year, but without the financial muscle to do so. Quite understandably this is a monstrously hard thing to achieve, and it is little wonder they are struggling this season to maintain previous levels, especially with their extensive injury list. Where they are not helped however, is by their manager trying to manage expectations when he has previously tried to raise them himself. Whilst calls for Rodgers to be sacked are overblown, fans are justified to be disgruntled and question the future direction of the club. Questions are being asked at Leicester, time will tell if Rodgers has the ability to provide the right answers.
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