Brendan Rodgers exclusive interview: Leicester boss excited whatever the narrative

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Brendan Rodgers discusses the narrative surrounding his Leicester side and why he is still excited for the future. Watch Manchester City vs Leicester live on Sky Sports Premier League and Sky Sports Main Event from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers

"There is no right or wrong. If people want to say that we spent 33 weeks out of 38 in the Champions League places and then just missed out and it is disappointing, then that is fine.

"If people want to say that the team had just had two ninth-place finishes, had a much smaller budget than some of the teams that they finished above, did not quite have the squad depth to stay in the top four but still managed to finish fifth and secure European football, that is a narrative that is also correct as well."

The mood surrounding Leicester right now is a curious one. It is true that the club came into the current campaign having achieved their second highest league finish in almost 60 years.

It is also true to say that a residual frustration lingers having lost a 14-point lead over Manchester United that has cost the club Champions League football this season.

Major accomplishment or missed opportunity? Maybe it is both.

Choose your narrative.

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The task for Rodgers now is to move things on and two wins from the first two games of the new Premier League season have helped to do that. Leicester went into the weekend top of the table before their daunting trip to face Pep Guardiola's Manchester City on Sunday.

Unique challenge of Guardiola

Rodgers is typically animated when discussing the unique challenge ahead of him. He is soon speaking with passion about Guardiola's time at Bayern Munich and the decision to bring the full-backs inside to coax the best from wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.

"It was a change from what he had done at Barcelona and it was something that had not been seen before," he explains. "Pep's tactical innovations have been incredible."

As Rodgers talks of Guardiola's 3-4-3 formation, his use of a 4-3-3 "with a lopsided full-back" and even the "3-diamond-3" it is as apparent as ever that he relishes this tactical aspect. He will be on high alert in the opening stages at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, eager to spot any tweak that his City counterpart might have looked to make in order to surprise him.

"You pretty much know the principles," says Rodgers. "They are going to build through midfield, play at a tempo, open up the pitch and get numbers on the inside. But one hour before the game you get the team sheet through and then you know the personnel too.

"Whenever you are a coach who can play different systems, it always makes the opposition coach think. You think you know the shape but there are always surprises. A player pops up playing in a different position. That first five or 10 minutes, you are analysing the team and the system. What you are trying to do is just prepare the players for that 'what if' scenario."

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It is refreshing to hear Rodgers in this mood, appetite undimmed. The second half of last season must have taken its toll. Twenty-four points from the final 22 games represented a paltry return for a team that had picked up the same number in an eight-game winning streak earlier in the campaign - one that included that 9-0 thrashing of Southampton.

Momentum was lost with injuries to Wilfred Ndidi, Ricardo Pereira and James Maddison so the news that the former could now be out for 12 weeks is a worry for supporters. But Pereira is back in training, while Maddison and Jonny Evans have returned too.

Rodgers is as optimistic as ever about the future for Leicester, even if a summer of big spending from many of their top-half rivals has put the scale of the task in stark focus.

"There are a lot of teams around us with big resources. Unfortunately for us, we don't have that. But I think that also shows how well this team has done. We have to find a different way in order to be there. We cannot spend the money that the teams around us are spending. But can we find the solutions in a different way? That is still exciting for me.

How can Leicester improve?

"Firstly, we have a number of young players who can improve. Last season, we showed lots of real potential in the squad. I always felt that two things would help us to improve and continue to develop this process. One of those was time. That means time to work with the players who are here, making them better year on year, particularly the young players.

"They will have gained from the experiences of last season - good and bad. Time will improve James Maddison. Time will improve Harvey Barnes. Consistency will make us better as well. That will come with the introduction of quality. Can we bring in players who will help us to improve? We have brought in two players of quality. That is fantastic."

He is referring to Timothy Castagne, the Belgian full-back who has already made a swift impact with a goal and an assist in his opening two games, and Cengiz Under, the Turkey international on loan from Roma, who is capable of adding creativity in the final third.

A new striker would be welcome, another option at centre-back useful too. But Rodgers is determined not to let success or failure in the market dictate his mood. Away from the talk of narratives and transfers, there is, above all, the work on the training pitch.

"I am a coach," he says. "I love working with players. I am going to really enjoy this process rather than spend it worry about what I don't have because I know there is still improvement, tactically and physically, to be made by the players who are here.

"By the end of the window, I will be happy to work with the players that I do have. If we cannot get players in because of the pandemic and the restrictions that we have, that is just unfortunate. I am going to work with the players I have here, develop them and enjoy it."

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leicester win over Burnley in the Premier League.

It is not just Maddison and Barnes. There were three academy graduates who started in the Carabao Cup against Arsenal on Wednesday. Luke Thomas, the left-back, a "server" of his winger, according to Rodgers. In midfield, Hamza Choudhury and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall.

All of the young players at Leicester are capable of going up a level.

"A few levels," insists Rodgers. "That is the beauty of it. What we have tried to do is set a standard in training every day - a mentality and an ambition for them to improve.

"I know from watching them that as well as what they have done, there is still a way to go for these players and they are hungry to do that. When you see that gap [between performance and potential] and you see how that gap can be closed, then that excites you."

Next step for Rodgers' team

This season will be a different challenge for many of these young players simply because of the schedule that awaits them. During the Premier League era, Leicester were twice involved in the UEFA Cup and twice eliminated in the first round.

This Europa League campaign will be different. The first three of six group games will be played in consecutive weeks from next month. While there are those in the squad who featured in the team's Champions League run, this will be a new experience for many.

"With so many games it is going to be hard to work with the high intensity. So there is going to be lots of recovery, lots of analysis through video, both individual and team. And, of course, there is a huge psychological factor in it too because you are travelling all over the place. It is exciting to have the European football but of course it brings its challenges.

"That was the ambition coming here. Could we take this club into Europe? We were able to do that. Now, the bigger challenge is staying there. This year's challenge will be tough for a lot of players because you have to be robust. You have to be strong both physically and mentally. It is a big challenge but that is where we want to be."

The demands will require tactical flexibility too. Leicester have had some success with a 4-3-3 formation but Rodgers is encouraged by the way that his team adapted to utilise a 3-4-1-2 in beating Sheffield United in July. Castagne's time as a left wing-back at Atalanta opens up the possibility of him switching sides to accommodate Pereira's return. There are options.

"I like the team to be able to play different systems and play them well," he adds. "This team has shown that. So that is a constant evolution but core principles remain the same.

"I always want the team to get the ball back as early as they can. There is lots of technical jargon in the game but it is about finding space when you have the ball, trying to overload the middle of the pitch, and then, when the other team has it, trying to deny the space. All the work and all the tactics will be based around that."

The work to prepare for Manchester City began early this week, despite the team's cup commitments on Wednesday evening. Eleven changes to the team for the game against Arsenal mean that some of the key players will have had this one in mind for some time.

"We drip feed it in through the week. We look at the challenges facing our defenders, the types of runs that they may make, how do we press the game are where do we put the pressure on. We will show images of that on Saturday and then run through our final preparations for the game. It is a drip feed without overloading them too early.

"Then, you hope you are ready."

Watch Manchester City vs Leicester live on Sky Sports Premier League and Sky Sports Main Event from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

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