Brendan Rodgers interview: Leicester City manager on the adversity his side have had to overcome this season

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Brendan Rodgers discusses Leicester's remarkable season; despite their success, the club have had to deal with adversity throughout; watch Chelsea vs Leicester live on Sky Sports from 8pm on Tuesday; kick-off 8.15pm

Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers
Image: Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers has had to deal with various challenges this season

Had Chelsea's disallowed goal stood and Ben Chilwell had been the man responsible for dashing the dreams of his boyhood club, this would have been a tale of big-club dominance. The story of Leicester City's academy graduate helping to ensure the club's long wait for FA Cup glory would continue.

Instead, the focus after their dramatic victory at Wembley on Saturday evening is on the Leicester success story. While Chilwell started on the bench, the £50m paid by Chelsea has been reinvested in Timothy Castagne and the hugely impressive Wesley Fofana. How much must the French defender be worth now?

This is Leicester, the club that has been able to parlay the miracle into something more - sustained success. They might have had the rub of Wembley's green grass in a game of fine margins but theirs remains a story of odds defied and adversity being overcome.

Much has been made of Liverpool's injuries this season. The loss of Harry Maguire - another Leicester sale - has had a big impact at Manchester United of late. But setbacks have been a feature of Brendan Rodgers' season. He even lost Jonny Evans in the cup final.

This is a team that keeps finding a way.

All of the centre-backs have missed games. James Justin was flying before injury ended his season. James Maddison and Harvey Barnes went down in quick succession. Even the Covid-19 breach in April might have unsettled them more had it not been handled so well.

On the face of it, progress has been smooth and serene with no long-term dips. Leicester have not finished the month outside the top four since October. But there have been challenges. The credit must go to Rodgers and his players for coping with them.

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"We have picked up injuries to important players," he tells Sky Sports. "But what I have always tried to look at is how we can make the best out of the assets that we do have.

"Rather than complain about what we don't have available and the quality they have, let's look at what we do have and how we can manage to make that work. Any time that we have had a bump along the way, we have analysed it and been honest with ourselves.

"It has never really dragged out over a long period of time. That is a great testament to the players that they have had that positive attitude going into games.

"I would like to think that is the environment we have created here, which is an honest and self-reflective environment. We are always analysing how we can improve."

Leicester fans gathered in the city to watch their team win the FA Cup

Ndidi starting season in defence

Right from the outset, the situation was far from ideal. Having dropped out of the top four on the final day of last season, losing Champions League football as a result, the summer break was not as full of optimism as it might have been. A good start was imperative.

"First game of the season, going to West Brom knowing that it was going to be a tough game against a newly-promoted team. That was a challenge for us."

The problem was that Evans was injured and Fofana had yet to arrive. Rodgers had to ask midfielder Wilfred Ndidi to deputise in defence. Leicester looked ripe for an upset but they won that first game 3-0 and then the next one 4-2 at the King Power Stadium.

"Wilf played there at home to Burnley too and was exceptional," says Rodgers. "The start of the season involved putting players in positions that maybe they don't play so much but he was someone I have always had immense trust in. He has all the attributes.

"Making that good start was important for us."

Changes of formation essential

With Evans back against Manchester City, Rodgers implemented his first formation switch of the season, opting for three at the back and winning 5-2 at the Etihad Stadium.

In December, he revisited the back four with Caglar Soyuncu now unavailable and stuck with it through much of the winter before more injuries led him to another change.

"It was about player availability, looking at their strengths," he says.

"For large parts of the season we had Jonny out, Cags out and Wesley Fofana too. So it was having to adapt to what we had and looking at the strengths of the players.

Leicester City's tactical flexibility under Brendan Rodgers
Image: Leicester City's tactical flexibility has been evident throughout the season

"I have always liked my teams to play different systems and have that flexibility. The shape of the team moves within the games whether you start with a three or a four.

"One of the things about having hundreds of games as a youth coach was playing with all different systems and knowing the strengths you get from different systems.

"My youth coaching days have really borne fruit for me this season because we have had to be flexible and we have had to find ways to have fluency in different systems. It is a great testament to the players that they were able to adapt and respond so positively."

Reshaping the side after injuries

If there was a key period in Leicester's season when their ambitions looked likely to be foiled, it was surely the final week of February. Maddison went off injured against Aston Villa on the Sunday, before Slavia Prague knocked them out of Europe on the Thursday.

"I just felt at that time we were very unfortunate. We had a thin squad. We wanted to continue in Europe, but we were short of numbers at that time. We did not have that strength in depth to cope. We then lost at the weekend too, which was not so good."

That 3-1 home defeat to Arsenal saw Barnes suffer a serious injury.

The winger was in the form of his life and while the Europa League exit was a blow to morale, the lasting consequences of being without another key performer could have been even more damaging. Especially given that Leicester looked so out of sorts against Arsenal.

"It was after that game that we looked at it and thought that it was not really us," Rodgers explains. "It was not a team that I looked at and could really identify our way of playing. We were a bit flat, all straight lines. It was too slow, there was no tempo to the play. It was after that game that I had to find a different solution because I was not enjoying watching us play.

"That is what we were able to do."

Getting the best from Iheanacho

Rodgers' decision to return to three at the back, but this time with two up front, proved a revelation, Kelechi Iheanacho turning his career around alongside the unselfish Jamie Vardy.

"Again, that was a case of looking at the assets that were not available," adds Rodgers.

"We had to get goalscorers in the team and have that creativity because there is no point playing a similar system if you do not have the players to play it the way you want.

Kelechi Iheanacho is in the form of his life for Leicester City under Brendan Rodgers
Image: Kelechi Iheanacho is in the form of his life for Leicester City under Rodgers

"Every system has its advantages but it is about getting the strength out of the system. Our idea pretty much stays the same in terms of how aggressive we want to be in the game."

The suggestion that Rodgers had little choice but to turn to Iheanacho is misguided. Picking him was one thing. Finding a way to help him to score 12 goals in nine games was another.

"You can say that it was forced on us," says the Leicester boss. "But we could very easily have continued playing the same system and it would not have worked."

Unity after Covid-19 controversy

In the midst of Iheanacho's spectacular scoring sequence came another unexpected setback of the sort that could easily have undermined much of the good work being done.

Maddison, Ayoze Perez and Hamza Choudhury were all left out of the travelling squad for the game against West Ham in April after breaking coronavirus rules by attending a party.

Iheanacho scored twice but Leicester lost 3-2 at the London Stadium.

Rodgers recognised instantly that it had the potential to be a big moment in the season. "The narrative," he says, "I can set that if I don't deal with it in the right way."

He took the hit in the short term to ensure success in the long term.

Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers is held aloft after his side's FA Cup win 0:20
Rodgers hails the FA Cup final win as a historic day for the club

"We were all disappointed," he explains. "If I was only interested in myself, those guys would have been involved in the West Ham game but we needed to make a bigger stand for the club and what we stand for here with our environment.

"You can fine players but it does not make a difference to modern players, to be quite honest. But if you take away their football, that is something they love and they miss.

"The boys know I love them here. We want to make them successful and they know that. But they also know there is a commitment to that if you want to succeed.

"Unfortunately, those players breached that.

"I was never going to fall out with them, I don't work that way. But there had to be a sanction for that. Once that game was gone we were able to draw a line under it.

"The boys involved stood up and spoke honestly. It brought us together closer and they were ready to fight for the rest of the season. It was a moment we reacted to positively."

What next for Rodgers' Leicester?

In a sense, that is the story of Leicester's year. Every challenge has been faced down. The result is that this most difficult of seasons has become one of the club's most successful.

In the process, Rodgers is redefining his own reputation. For all his triumphs with Celtic, his first major trophy in England has arrived seven years after coming so close with Liverpool.

But the FA Cup does not feel like an ending. Leicester cannot allow it to with such a huge rematch with Chelsea looming on Tuesday. And even if that match does not go Leicester's way, the feeling persists that this is a club in capable hands, ready for the next challenge.

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"Any bit of adversity, if you frame it in the right way can be a really positive part of your learning," Rodgers concludes. "That is something we always try to do here.

"When I think of where we were a year ago, this is a team that has evolved, matured and improved. That does not make it any easier because it is still a huge challenge to be competing with Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool and Arsenal and Tottenham, these teams that have been continuously up there.

"But we have shown that we are ready to compete and fight over the duration. That is something that makes me proud and gives me great ambition to continue with that."

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