Brendan Rodgers will have known the repercussions of his decision. He will have been aware many Celtic fans would not forgive him. Yet the opportunity to take charge at Leicester City in February was too good to turn down.
And so despite a historic treble treble very much on the cards and, with it, the opportunity to solidify himself as a club legend, Rodgers walked out on the Scottish giants for a Leicester side that were 12th in the Premier League.
“Never a Celt, always a fraud,” read one banner when Celtic faced Hearts the day after Rodgers’ departure was confirmed. Another stated: “You traded immortality for mediocrity”.
It wasn’t only the Celtic fans who questioned Rodgers’ decision. Former Hoops defender Alan Stubbs was also perplexed and felt the Ulsterman had made a mistake.
“I think that, over time, Brendan will regret leaving when he did,” he told The Scotsman. “Brendan’s image has been damaged in terms of his rapport with the Celtic supporters. Regarding Brendan as a manager, only time will tell; it may have damaged that as well.
“The fact that he also decided to move to a mid-table team… I know Leicester won the title in 2016 but that was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Realistically, if you look at Leicester as a club they are, at best, an eighth position team and, more often than not, they’re going to be ninth, tenth or eleventh.”
Rodgers had taken a calculated gamble. He knew the remainder of Leicester’s 2018/19 campaign was something of a free pass and that gave him an opportunity to assess his squad and ingrain his tactical methods without pressure.
Leicester finished the season in ninth but the foundations had very much been laid. Under Rodgers, the Foxes’ goals per 90, shots on target per 90 and Big Chances created per 90 all increased and could only be bettered by three top-flight sides. Their goals conceded per 90, meanwhile, decreased to 0.91, the fourth-best figure in the division.
Rodgers’ next step was to reshape his squad. Premier League title-winners Shinji Okazaki and Danny Simpson, both in their thirties, were released. Meanwhile, Andy King, Islam Slimani, Rachid Ghezzal and Fousseni Diabaté all left on loan.
In came Ayoze Pérez from Newcastle United for £30million. Youri Tielemans‘ loan move from Monaco was made permanent for £40million. Full-back James Justin arrived from Luton Town for £6million. And Dennis Praet signed late in the transfer window from Sampdoria. None of the quartet were older than 25 years old.
“I was delighted with the progress we made last season and I know the players will be motivated to use that as a platform to show exactly what they are capable of,” Rodgers said in the summer.
“They’re a group that can really make an impression in the Premier League, and with the mentality we have in the squad, I believe we are in a strong position to do that.”
Yet had Leicester been prepared to delay Rodgers’ arrival until the summer, none of the above would’ve been possible. Sure the former Liverpool head coach could’ve assessed the Foxes from afar and drawn up a list of transfer targets, but it would have been done so without first-hand knowledge of what each player was truly capable of.
Rodgers would not have known the intricacies of James Maddison‘s game. He would not have appreciated Tielemans’ undoubted potential. He wouldn’t have known Çağlar Söyüncü was capable of stepping into the first team if Harry Maguire departed.
It was only his three-month grace period at the end of last season that ensured he had the solution to any problem posed this summer. And that has enabled Leicester to make an excellent start to the 2019/20 campaign.
Ten games into the Premier League season and the Foxes sit in third, just two points behind Manchester City. They have scored 25 goals, the second-highest tally in the division, and have conceded just eight, the joint-best record alongside leaders Liverpool.
Leicester’s underlying numbers also make pleasant reading for Rodgers and his players. They’re third in the top-flight for open-play goals per 90 (1.90), first for forward passes per 90 (173.20) and fourth for final-third passes completed (111.20).
Without the ball they’re equally as impressive. No Premier League side is completing more tackles per 90 (13.10) and only one can better Leicester’s 60 defensive duels won per 90.
The numbers will be slightly skewed by the Foxes’ historic nine-goal win at Southampton, but the takeaway is that Leicester are not in a Champions League position by fortune. They are an effective, entertaining and well-drilled side that can challenge for Europe this season.
And perhaps Rodgers knew that was possible all along. Perhaps he knew he wasn’t swapping Celtic for a Premier League also-ran. Perhaps he wasn’t a monster, he was just ahead of the curve.