“They have now felt that emotion of winning, that feeling of getting your hands on a trophy,” Brendan Rodgers tells Sky Sports. “Once you do that, it takes you to a different place. We now know what it takes to win. You want more.”
Rodgers is reflecting on Leicester City’s FA Cup win over Chelsea, the club’s first in their 137-year history. They have since returned to Wembley to beat Manchester City in the Community Shield and kicked off their Premier League season with a win over Wolves.
These are special times at a club that has enjoyed plenty of them in recent years. As Rodgers will go on to explain, Leicester want to look forward now, inspired by these moments, boosted by their stunning new training ground. But he can afford to reminisce briefly.
He has watched it all back. The strike by Youri Tielemans. The astonishing stop by Kasper Schmeichel. “Youri’s goal and Kasper’s save lit up the final. It was a great day for the supporters. It will be a memory that will connect us all here at Leicester for a lifetime.”
He hopes the legacy of the win will be ongoing.
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“Some of these guys had won trophies before, a lot of them had not. Beating a team that had just beaten Real Madrid over two legs, a team that obviously went on to become the European champions was a huge psychological boost for the players.”
For Rodgers personally, this was an important step too. Having won seven trophies inside three seasons at Celtic, he is no stranger to success, but this was his first major silverware won in England. Perhaps it was cathartic for a man who had gone so close previously.
He is the one who mentions that he has become the first Northern Irish manager to win the FA Cup since Terry Neill in 1979, the first British manager since Harry Redknapp in 2008. A more personal recollection is the telephone call received from Sir Alex Ferguson.
“He rang me up, him and I having both now won the FA Cup in England and Scotland,” he explains, his expression more animated. “I take huge personal pride in that. For me, it was really special. From a personal perspective, it meant so much.”
Brendan Rodgers celebrating with Leicester owner Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha
Rodgers’ status as one of the game’s finest coaches cannot be in doubt. Already this year, his team has beaten Manchester United home and away. He has also managed to get the better of sides managed by Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp.
He is quick to credit the players but those were victories over Champions League-winning coaches masterminded from the touchline. Against Liverpool, it was the switch to a diamond formation that helped win it. The recent success against Chelsea and City featured significant tactical adjustments.
“In the Community Shield, we put on two strikers. At a time when momentum was shifting towards them, we put in players with energy to bring a different dynamic to the game.” Substitute Kelechi Iheanacho won and converted the late penalty that decided it.
In the FA Cup final, there was a very different change, Wes Morgan emerging from the bench in what everyone knew would be his final appearance for the club. It was the plan. “I obviously think about the game well before it happens,” says Rodgers.
“I said to him, ‘Can you give us 10 or 15 minutes at the end if we are winning and they put Olivier Giroud on? Are you going to be there to head it?’ You are scripting it, how it will happen. It does not always work out that way but we prepare for different scenarios.”
There was a similar example on the opening weekend of the season when Rodgers turned to new signing Jannik Vestergaard with half an hour remaining against Wolves. Again, the momentum had shifted. A change of shape helped to ensure Leicester saw out the game.
“It gave them something else to think about because our system has changed. I just felt that we needed to get his composure into the game. I also felt that he allows us to play and penetrate through the lines. When he came in, we played with a greater calmness.”
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leicester’s win over Wolves in the Premier League
He knows the margins are tight. The switch against Manchester City might have been perceived as unnecessarily bold with the score level, the changes against Chelsea and Wolves overly cautious when protecting a one-goal lead. Either way, Rodgers sees it as his job.
“I am always active in the game,” he explains. “I don’t want to ever come away going, ‘I wish I’d have thought of that.’ I would always rather do it because I think eight times out of 10 it will work for you. Once or twice it won’t. I can live with that. But I’d rather do it.”
It comes from the “thousands of games since being a young coach” and the experience this brings. “You get a feeling for games, you get a feeling for systems.” Not just the manager himself, but, crucially, the players too. They are much better able to adjust now.
“You have to be adaptable in the modern game. The team here will, in the main, always play with the same identity. We will be aggressive and attack the game. But we need to be flexible. We need to be able to play out of different shapes and different systems.
“The players now understand that. The players will always have clarity. We talk through it. We show them, this is what might happen in the game. So they are ready for the change when it comes – if it has to come. That just comes from a feeling for the game.”
Rodgers is seeing that from his squad more and more these days.
Speaking at the club’s training ground, he recalls a session he has just witnessed that illustrates the point. “I saw a game this morning that we played, 11 versus 11, and just the mentality in the game from when I first came in, it is just different.”
There is greater depth. In attack, Patson Daka has joined Kelechi Iheanacho in pushing Jamie Vardy for a place. Boubakary Soumare is a promising addition in midfield. When James Justin and Timothy Castagne return, the full-back options look particularly strong.
Wesley Fofana’s serious ankle injury was a huge blow. “He is incredible and I was looking forward to his development this year.” But there will be no excuses. “I try not to get too down about what we don’t have. It is just about maximising the talents that we do.”
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He believes there is enough to compete in all competitions. The Europa League exit last season was a frustration. “We had injuries and you then try to prioritise where we were at. Unfortunately, we could not push as much as we wanted to. We had to make a choice.”
This year, they begin that competition among the favourites. With the two domestic cup competitions to contest as well, Leicester will have their chances, even if competing against the top four does not become any easier given the vast budgets of their now rivals.
“Liverpool have their players back. Chelsea are strong anyway and they have brought in Romelu Lukaku. Manchester City will get up to speed and maybe bring one or two in before the window. There is Manchester United. And that is just those four.
“But we can only control ourselves. We are in a really good place as a club if you shine the torch and look at it. We have sustained that position of being up there. The standards that we have set have allowed us to set up a base camp at the top end of this league.
“It is always going to be hard for us to be involved with some of the top teams over 38 games but can we be there, can we be competitive and stay in and around that top? What we want is to be competitive, play with an identity and look to challenge.
“If we can improve, if we can keep the squad as available as we can, get some players back, it would be nice to be competitive in Europe. It would be nice to have a run. We are going to look to really fight in all the competitions. You just never know what will happen.”
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With that, he returns to his theme. They have a taste for it now.
“It has come with time, patience and courage but the boys have got a feeling for winning something,” he adds. “We want to keep that going. Those European finishes, winning the FA Cup and the Community Shield, that all lets the players feel this is tangible.
“Winning does that. And, once you have won, it is a different feeling.”
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