Brendan Rodgers was respectful after his Leicester side lost to Manchester City on Saturday evening. City had been excellent, he conceded, and he was gracious in defeat, talking up the performance of Kevin De Bruyne and what he referred to as an ‘outstanding’ side.
Whether he admits it or not, though, Rodgers will know that that was a missed opportunity. City’s show of strength wasn’t an illusion – they really were excellent at the Etihad – but Leicester are a very good team in their own right and, theoretically, possessed the tools to take at least a point from the game and consolidate second place in the Premier League
The worry, however, is that they are not themselves when facing this kind of opponent. Earlier in the season they disappointing at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. They were also extremely poor at Old Trafford in losing to Manchester United and, although they played well, careless in throwing away a good point at Anfield against Liverpool. This latest setback, then, was less an underwhelming result and more the extension of a developing trend which threatens to limit their progress.
But what is it that makes Leicester effective? A couple of core strengths. Their ability to snap into the counter-attack, for one, and the range of players capable of unleashing Jamie Vardy from deep positions. That's a powerful utility. The composure of the centre-halves is another virtue, as is their respective ability to pass the ball out of defence. The aggressive full-back tandem is a tremendous asset, too, while Wilfred Ndidi, Youri Tielemans and James Maddison are as theoretically talented as almost any midfield trio in the country, capable obviously of being a front-foot threat, but also of dropping deeper and, together, protecting a defence.
The trouble for Rodgers, at the moment at least, is that those positives seem to recede when they're pitted against the biggest sides. Even when, as on Saturday, the nature of the contest appears to suit them. Leicester may well have taken the lead at Etihad – and even threatened to double that advantage – but the tenor of their performance was wrong almost from the start. They weren't aggressive in a way which implied any sort conviction. Conversely, in those early stages they appeared to want possession for its own sake and to pass their way into a game in which they obviously felt inferior.
There was a moment which described that before the opening goal, when Ben Chilwell was poised to take a quick free-kick, which he shaped to hit early and over the top for Vardy to chase. The centre-forward didn’t make the run, though, gesturing instead for Chilwell to calm down and restart the game with an easy pass inside.
Perhaps it’s reading too much into an isolated moment, but that did seem indicative of Leicester’s apprehension. As, unfortunately, did the rest of their performance. That 1-0 lead was quickly thrown away, because of a deflection, but also a typical Riyad Mahrez run which could have been seen coming a mile away. Then it was 2-1, with the visitors caught too far up the pitch and their midfield left to watch as City broke away, with Ricardo Pereira giving away a clumsy penalty.
That second goal was the perfect one to make this point, actually, because it showed the Premier League’s meanest defence in chaos and, vividly, it showed the breaking down of all the systems which have served Rodgers’ team so well. But the third was no less descriptive, either: De Bruyne broke into space which should never have been there, Gabriel Jesus was allowed to drift to the back-post unmarked to score
And where was the response? Other than three counter-attacks (Vardy’s two chances in the first, Harvey Barnes’ in the second), it was concerning just how little threat Leicester presented. Against a defence, remember, which comprised a repurposed midfielder, in Fernandinho, and an orthodox centre-half in Nicolas Otamendi who, to be kind, is less than dependable.
Where was the craft? Most likely, like all of Leicester’s other strengths, it was claimed by the team’s collective inhibition.
Rodgers has to find a way of curing this. His Leicester side are not short of talent, but they're mentally fragile in a way which prohibits them from being effective in this sort of game.
Next up is Liverpool on Boxing Day and an immediate chance to dispel those suspicions. To do that, though, they'll have to be far truer to what they've shown themselves to be. The Leicester who strut against the Premier League's also-rans will be a mighty test for the champions-elect. The weaker proposition they present on the bigger stages, however, will surely just be swatted away.
Rodgers will be frustrated by that disparity. Now, he needs to eliminate it.
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Seb Stafford-Bloor is a football writer at Tifo Football and member of the Football Writers' Association. He was formerly a regularly columnist for the FourFourTwo website, covering all aspects of the game, including tactical analysis, reaction pieces, longer-term trends and critiquing the increasingly shady business of football's financial side and authorities' decision-making.