Rodgers has bright future as elite coach if he can escape past failures

Football

Brendan Rodgers has already experienced the defining moment of his managerial career. Rightly or wrongly, the Leicester City manager’s achievements will always be viewed through the prism of what happened in spring 2014, when his Liverpool team of Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling stumbled on the home straight of the Premier League title race and finished second having seemed certain to end up as champions.

History has judged Rodgers harshly ever since. Despite bouncing back from his Liverpool disappointment by winning seven major honours in under three years as Celtic manager, the 48-year-old has still to convince his doubters that he has what it takes to step up to the elite level of coaches, which is why the final two weeks of the 2020-21 season have become so crucial in signposting the next stage of his career.

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If Rodgers can guide his faltering Leicester team to a top-four finish, an FA Cup final win or both, then he will have silenced his critics with an emphatic display of success. But if Leicester miss out on Champions League qualification again and lose to Chelsea at Wembley this Saturday (stream LIVE at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN+ in the U.S.), it will be hard to escape the reality of another late-season loss of form and belief under Rodgers’ management.

If Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea in April 2014 was the culmination of Act 1 of Rodgers’ career — the slip allowed Demba Ba to score, setting Chelsea on course for the 2-0 win that derailed Liverpool’s title bid — Leicester’s end to this season is the key moment of Act 2.

Starting with Tuesday’s Premier League clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford, when the home side are expected to rest several players ahead of Thursday’s rearranged encounter with Liverpool, Rodgers must somehow find a way to re-ignite a season that is in danger of going horribly wrong for Leicester a year after they just missed out on Champions League qualification.

It is a simple equation in the league. Seven points from their final three games will guarantee a top-four finish. Fewer will suffice if Liverpool fail to win all four of their remaining games, but Leicester’s three final league games are against United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, which is a daunting schedule for a side who have won just two of their last seven league fixtures. So can Rodgers arrest Leicester’s slump and get the job done?

The 48-year-old can build exciting teams that play stylish football. He puts his faith in young players — Sterling at Liverpool, Wesley Fofana at Leicester — and he unquestionably improved his three previous clubs — Swansea City, Liverpool and Celtic. He is clearly following the same pattern at Leicester, who are battling for Champions League qualification for the second season in a row and preparing for their first FA Cup final since 1969.

But Leicester’s recent loss of form is a mirror image of last season’s collapse when they surrendered a Champions League spot on the final day of the campaign having been in the top four all season. When you factor in Liverpool’s lost title in 2014, when a Rodgers team once again failed to get over the finishing line, it is not difficult to identify the biggest question mark over his reputation: why can’t his teams deliver when it matters most?

It is a question that will only go away once it is answered in a positive fashion, which is why the final two weeks of this season are as important as the run-in to Liverpool’s title race in 2014. Back in 2013-14, Liverpool missed out on the title despite winning 15 and drawing three of their final 19 games of the season. The one defeat, against Chelsea, opened the door for Manchester City to claim the title with a two-point winning margin.

So to suggest that Liverpool fell away under Rodgers would be harsh. In most seasons, Liverpool’s form in the second half of the campaign would have guaranteed a title. Their undoing was ultimately their defensive record, with the team conceding 50 goals in 38 games compared to City’s 37. But despite Liverpool’s statistics suggesting that Rodgers maintained strong form throughout the second half of the season, the end result was failure and it continues to haunt him at Leicester.

Last season, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a 100-day suspension of the Premier League campaign, Leicester won just six of their final 19 league games. A final-day defeat against Manchester United saw them slip out of the top four for the first time. Just four league wins after New Year’s Day caused Leicester’s downfall, but Rodgers lost key players James Maddison, Ben Chilwell, Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira to long-term injuries and a lack of depth contributed to the run of bad results.

It has been a similar story this season, although the slump has been shallower and less prolonged, with seven wins and five defeats from 16 games in the second half of the campaign. Injuries have again been a central factor, with Maddison, James Justin, Harvey Barnes, Jonny Evans and Jamie Vardy all missing important periods.

Recent results have highlighted the old Rodgers flaw of defensive issues, with 12 goals conceded in seven games. When the time comes to shut up shop with a more pragmatic game-plan, Rodgers tends to stick with his attacking principles, despite the risks. It is perhaps why he has yet to be offered another chance to manage a “Big Six” club, or a major European team, because the ability to defend properly is just as important as producing a side that excites the supporters.

But if the Rodgers brand of football is able to deliver success in the form of trophies or Champions League football, club owners will regard him as a gamble worth taking. He just needs to find a way to take that next step. Rodgers and Leicester can do it together over the next two weeks, but it will be a big test of his coaching skills to make it happen.

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