In an exclusive interview with Brendan Rodgers, the Leicester boss explains how Caglar Soyuncu emerged as the man to replace Harry Maguire - becoming a cult hero with supporters in the process
Monday 4 November 2019 23:35, UK
'Harry Maguire, we don't need you.' Even the Leicester supporters must have doubted themselves when first singing that chant in support of Caglar Soyuncu.
There are many more believers now.
Soyuncu has been a revelation this season. From the Cruyff turns that he brought out on the opening weekend against Wolves to the sight of him leaving Christian Pulisic on his backside before deftly lofting the ball over him at Chelsea, the Turkey international has oozed class.
He's a cult hero now. The haircut might hint at Lord Farquaad from the Shrek movies but don't say that to his face. Ben Chilwell tells tales of bone-crunching handshakes and headlocks inside the physio room. "He doesn't let go because he enjoys inflicting pain on people," the young Leicester full-back told Sky Sports recently. "He genuinely does."
The Foxes are flying, up in third place, but Soyuncu's own stunning start to the season is particularly welcome because few had predicted it after such an underwhelming first year at the club. Expectations had been high after a £20m move from Freiburg in the summer of 2019 but he started only three Premier League games under Claude Puel.
As Brendan Rodgers reveals, Puel's successor had his doubts too.
"To be honest, looking in from outside, he looked like someone who would take a risk in his defending and someone who would make a couple of mistakes," Rodgers tells Sky Sports.
"That was my initial feeling on him."
Rodgers soon began to see that he had more to his game.
"When I arrived and I saw him in training, it became clear that he was a very good player. Over those first few months, the longer I was here, the more I could see his quality.
"What impressed me about him is that the club had two very good defenders ahead of him in Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans. At one point he was fourth choice because you had Wes Morgan coming in too. But that would not affect him. He was still very good in training."
Patience was required. Those close to Soyuncu speak of a player who is completely dedicated to his football but that must have been difficult in those winter nights when he went more than three months without a first-team appearance.
It was not until the trip to Huddersfield in April, when Evans was ruled out with a hip injury and Maguire was given time off following the birth of his daughter, that Soyuncu was entrusted with his first taste of the action under Rodgers.
"It was the just the matter of an opportunity. That came at Huddersfield. He played in the game and he was only told in the morning because Jonny was due to play, with Cags on the bench. But he played in the game and he was absolutely great.
"I met his representatives not long after that. They flew in from Germany. I said: 'Listen, I really like him. I understand that it's probably hard for you to understand that because he is not playing so much but next season could be a big season for him.' It just reassured them."
There were still some rash tackles and loose passes during the early pre-season games against Scunthorpe and Cheltenham. But with Maguire bound for the exit and the task of bringing in a replacement proving tricky, Soyuncu passed his final audition and that was enough for Rodgers to feel comfortable going into the season with him.
"It was probably one of the last games against Atalanta where we just thought he would work well with Jonny. We felt Jonny's experience would help him with his positioning."
The partnership between Evans and Soyuncu has been even better than Rodgers could have hoped. No team in the Premier League has conceded fewer goals so far this season.
"He has been absolutely fantastic and he is only going to get better with experience," says Rodgers. "He will go to Old Trafford. He will go to Anfield. He is not frightened of anything.
"He is quick, he is aggressive. He can defend first and foremost. He has absolutely no qualms whatsoever of just smashing the ball over the stand. He wants to defend. But he can play football and that's important if you want to be a top team. You have to be able to defend but you have to be able to play and he can do that."
The numbers back that up. There are only two central defenders in the Premier League who have completed more passes this season - Virgil van Dijk and Toby Alderweireld. This comfort with the ball at his feet harks back to his youth-team days when he started out as a midfielder.
Soyuncu is very much the defender now. He has made more tackles than Van Dijk and Alderweireld combined. He has made more interceptions and more headed clearances than them too. A Rolls-Royce but also a tank.
It is why Jamie Carragher is a self-confessed Soyuncu fan-boy. "He loves to defend," he told Sky Sports. "This is what he is about. Getting in front of people, being aggressive."
But despite Soyuncu's old Freiburg coach Christian Streich once claiming that the defender is more mature than he is, there are still aspects of his game than need smoothing out.
"At times, he has been caught out this season," added Carragher. "He can be rash. That is something that he has got to learn with maturity. He is still young for a centre-back. It is something that he has certainly got to improve but it is something that I think will improve. He is really aggressive and he can also play. He just needs to calm down a bit."
That was evident at Freiburg too. He conceded two penalties in the first two months of his debut season in Germany. In a sense, it is a natural consequence of his front-foot approach.
"He is a bit of a throwback really in that he wants to defend," says Rodgers. "He will learn that it is difficult at this level. He conceded a penalty at Old Trafford with the slightest touch because he is now playing against top-level strikers. But he is going to get better from that."
Back in January, there was talk of Soyuncu making a return to Turkey on loan. In the spring, his advisors were visiting Leicester to check whether they needed an exit plan. As recently as the summer, there was uncertainty. Now the reports from his homeland are linking Soyuncu with a transfer to the reigning Premier League champions Manchester City.
It is a remarkable turnaround. A reminder that things take time.
"What sometimes gets forgotten is the settling-in period for players," says Rodgers.
"It used to be the case years ago that a player would come into a club and you might not hear about him for six months to a year because he was just settling in. He was finding his feet. Then he would get into the team and play.
"Now these guys are coming from different countries with different languages and different religions into the most competitive league in European football and they are expected to adapt just like that. It is not always going to happen.
"So for him, he actually had that nice settling-in period of six months. It was great for me because I could actually have the chance to see him in training. That was important because we knew in the summer that Harry might go and we were clear that we might need another centre-half but we knew that if that didn't happen then we had this guy already here."
Leicester still have plans to go back into the market for a centre-back in the next transfer window, but the circumstances have changed now. The fall-back option is now the fan favourite. The investment - financial and otherwise - has paid off.
This is the way it should be.
"As a coach you understand that players are not always going to be ready-made," adds Rodgers. "There is a process there to help make him better.
"He has Jonny and Wes here. These are people who can help him alongside all the coaching from guys like Kolo Toure who has been a top centre-half himself. It is about managing that and when he does makes a mistake then he can analyse it, learn from it and get better."
All the signs are that Caglar Soyuncu will do just that.