Leicester City have parted ways with manager Brendan Rodgers. This isn’t news and I’m sure you’re aware of the situation. Rodgers spent four years at the King Power and experienced as much success as any City manager not named “Ranieri” and more than his share of heartache as well. We finished 5th on the table twice under Rodgers, which would normally seem great, but when you spent the entire season in the top 4 and fall out on the last day of the season (as we did on both occasions), even 5th feels like a disappointment.
The club were bedevilled by injuries over his entire tenure, and it’s fair to question whether he was a cause of this or if it was just dumb luck. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other. I’m not going to try to go over Rodgers’ entire time here or determine where he rates among our managers all-time or whether or not his time here was a success or not.
Instead, what I’d like to do is talk a little about Earl Weaver. My background is in baseball; I was raised on the sport and I’ve worked on the periphery of the industry several times. I’m also a person who understands things through stories and analogies. Thus, I often try to explain things in the same fashion. Please bear with me on this as I promise we’ll bring it back around to Brendan Rodgers.
Earl Weaver was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team for 17 years, which is every bit as impressive as it sounds. Over that time, the Orioles won their division 6 times and finished second 7 times. That might not sound impressive, but the Orioles were in the same division as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Believe me: His record is fantastic.
Weaver thought about baseball in ways that were unusual at the time. He had an extremely methodical and statistic-driven approach to selecting his lineups and the strategies he used. I should mention became Baltimore’s manager in the late 1960s, so he was far ahead of his time and is often cited as the father of using statistics in baseball*.
Both his use of numbers and his understanding of how the sport worked led him to many unorthodox strategies. He “platooned” his players more often than anyone else, using right-handed hitters and left-handed pitchers and vice versa. Everyone knew about this advantage, but Weaver took advantage of it to an unusual degree.
In fact, every player on his roster had several “roles” on the club: Left-handed pinch hitter, defensive replacement at second base and shortstop, pinch runner, etc. If he had players who could do everything, then great, they played a lot. But, everyone on the roster could do one or more things well and he found a way to take advantage of those things.
As for the things the players didn’t do well? Here’s what the great Bill James had to say:
“See, managers spend a lot of time talking about what some player can’t do. Weaver wasn’t interested in what a player couldn’t do. He was interested in what the player could do. If he can’t hit a breaking pitch, you don’t play him against Bert Blyleven**. If he can’t run, you pinch-run for him—but you don’t let that stop you from developing what the player can do. It’s the things that players can do that will win games for you.”
Bill James, from his book The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today.
That’s the manager’s job, right? I mean, the job is to “win games,” but the manager can’t go out on the field and do that. Instead, you have to take the players you have, figure out who can do what, and then put the players in situations where they can do what they do well. You keep them from having to do the things they can’t do well. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your resources.
I said this post was about Brendan Rodgers and, as I am not nearly as subtle as I like to believe I am, you’ve probably sussed out where I’m going with this. If there’s one thing that I think ensured this unseemly end to Rodgers’ time at the King Power, it’s how he used his players and his inability to take advantage of what they could do for the team.
It’s not just the most obvious example. We’ll get to him momentarily. There are plenty of cases:
- We brought in Jannik Vestergaard in what was obviously a panic buy. Rodgers tried to play him in the gaffer’s preferred high line and it didn’t go well. Vestergaard lacks the pace to play that far up the pitch. He’s been out in the cold ever since.
- Ayoze Perez was brought in to be a right-wing, which he obviously wasn’t really suited to be. He was a good (albeit frustrating) second striker who could operate in close quarters, but he struggled to get game time and was allowed to leave.
- Marc Albrighton was allowed to leave even though we were thin at his position and he could (and can) do things that no one else in the squad can do.
- Boubakary Soumare seems to have no role with the club in spite of being one of the highest-paid players we have.
- I’m just going to say “Dennis Praet” and leave it at that. Poor guy.
- Cengiz Ünder was brought in to solve the problem on the right wing, but he quickly fell out of favour and sat on the bench until his loan expired. He scored 10 goals the following season for Marseille.
I could go on, but you get the idea. These are all players that Rodgers couldn’t find a use for. He focused on what they couldn’t do rather than taking advantage of what they could do. He put them in situations where their weaknesses were exposed rather than playing to their strengths.
It’s Ünder’s countryman who is the best example of this failure. Çağlar Söyüncü has played all of 79 minutes in the league for Leicester this year. There’s no footballing explanation for this. He’s only 26 years old, and he logged 2,500 minutes for us last year and was arguably our best defender (albeit with minimal competition). He hasn’t been injured and he’s played well for Turkey. For a team leaking goals, it’s shocking that he hasn’t been given a full match’s worth of minutes in the side. He has reportedly signed a pre-contract deal with Atletico Madrid, meaning that he’s not good enough to play for Rodgers but he’s good enough to play for Diego Simeone.
My point is that when Brendan Rodgers complained about how thin the squad was, he was only partially right; he also didn’t know how to, or just wouldn’t, use many of his players. A manager does not have complete control over which players he has; he has complete control over how he uses them.
When you bring a player into the squad, there should be no surprises. You have a good idea of what that can and cannot do. You should have an idea of what roles you expect them to play in the squad and how to deploy them so they can do what they do well. You try to protect them from being asked to do what they can’t do well.
In the end, I don’t think that Rodgers was flexible enough to find a way to use the players at his disposal. Earl Weaver would have switched to a low block against clubs with big aerial threats, and Vestergaard would have been brilliant. He’d have brought in a tall striker and kept Albrighton in the squad. He would never in a million years ask James Maddison to be a winger.
In order to be effective, I think Brendan Rodgers needs to go to a club where he will have vast, nigh-endless resources at his disposal.
I hear Chelsea’s hiring.
* The ghosts of Bill McKechnie and Branch Rickey would like a word with those sources.
** Unrelated to football, but man, Bert Blyleven could pitch. One of the best curveballs I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them. My spicy Blyleven opinion is that he was a better pitcher than Jim Palmer but was hurt by the fact that he never got to pitch for Earl Weaver’s teams, only against them.