Soccer

How Leicester City climbed back into English Premier League's elite

Soccer

Leicester City are ahead of manager Brendan Rodgers' earliest ambitions. 

The Foxes are second in the English Premier League table ahead of the festive fixture period, with a Carabao Cup semi-final tie against Aston Villa to come in January. Rodgers set expectations for a top-six finish and a domestic trophy when he took the Leicester job in February, and the Foxes have not managed either since winning the Premier League title in 2015-16. 

"It's like Leicester City 2.0, isn't it?" NBC Sports play-by-play commentator -- and lifelong Leicester supporter -- Arlo White told NBC Sports Bay Area in an interview last week. "I think people, generally, after the astonishing achievement of 2015-16, expected Leicester to go back to where they came from, which is sort of lower mid-table, trying to stave off relegation."

Leicester are 10 points back of league-leading Liverpool, but they still are on pace for more points (82) than their Premier League-winning campaign four seasons ago (81). The Foxes flirted with relegation in the season immediately following their longshot triumph, but patient squad-building and the eventual appointment of Rodgers have them back among England's elite and, arguably, the closest thing to a title threat Liverpool will see this season. 

Though the Reds will have a game in hand, the Foxes can cut the gap between first and second to seven points with a win over Liverpool at King Power Stadium on Boxing Day. A win Thursday, coupled with Liverpool's fixture congestion following their Club World Cup in Qatar last week, could open the door for Leicester to mount a title challenge. 

 

The Boxing Day match will be Rodgers' second with Leicester in the Premier League against Liverpool. The Reds sacked him after a draw in the Merseyside Derby on Oct. 4, 2015, and a win surely would help dispel a narrative that White thinks has unfairly followed Rodgers since he left Anfield. 

"Despite this sort of air of mockery surrounding Brendan Rodgers because of a sort of perceived ego that he has," White said, "he came within a [Steven Gerrard slip] of ending a 25-year drought for Liverpool winning the English title (in 2013-14). He was so close, he'd have a statue outside of Anfield now had they managed to close out that title charge.

"So, he went to Celtic (in Scotland) to rehabilitate his career. He won every single trophy. All seven trophies that were on offer, he won. There were one or two issues in the [UEFA Champions League], but a team with the budget restrictions of a Celtic when compared to Europe's elite -- that's always going to be a problem. But, I think because of this notion that he was an egotist, I think that put a lot of the big clubs off. Now all of a sudden a year later, you hear that some of the big clubs are falling over themselves offering a job!"

Rodgers extended his Leicester contract earlier this month amid reported links with Arsenal's managerial vacancy. White even thinks Rodgers has done a good enough job to warrant Manchester City's interest if Pep Guardiola leaves.

Jamie Vardy's resurgence is emblematic of Rodgers' approach, White said. The 32-year-old striker has scored 26 goals in 30 matches under Rodgers dating back to last season, and he's six goals clear of the next-closest player in the race for the Golden Boot. 

"Rodgers has got him playing to his strengths, so he plays within the width of the 18-yard box," White said of Vardy. "He's judicious when it comes to pressing, he doesn't waste energy. He's an intelligent footballer, Jamie Vardy, a far better footballer than people give him credit for. This is what Brendan Rodgers does really well. He identifies players' strengths and keeps it simple."

Vardy and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel are the only players remaining from the title-winning squad who have played at least 1,000 Premier League minutes this season. Leicester have done a remarkable job turning over their squad since lifting the trophy in 2016, signing the likes of central defender Çağlar Söyüncü, midfielders James Maddison, Wilfred Ndidi and James Maddison and right back Ricardo Pereira all within the last two years. 

It helps, too, that Leicester have sold a player for more than $40 million in each of the last four summer transfer windows, including English center back Harry Maguire to Manchester United for just shy of $100 million this summer. That has allowed Leicester to continually reinvest in the squad, relying on one of the Premier League's best scouting networks to find long-term replacements for since-departed stars. 

 

This sensible approach to squad-building might not be enough to catch up with Liverpool, as White put it, "[collecting] points on an industrial scale" this season, especially after Leicester's loss to Manchester City last weekend. But under Rodgers, the Foxes are set up nicely for sustained success.

"[If] it's not a title race, Leicester are still ahead of where Brendan Rodgers said he wanted the club to be," White said. "These are very exciting times again."