Brendan Rodgers knows how the game works. “If you are bottom and have lost six out of seven you are not going to be flavour of the month,” he said in the buildup to his Leicester side hosting Nottingham Forest on Monday in an east Midlands derby that has all the hallmarks of a potentially definitive fixture for at least one of the managers.
Steve Cooper is also under pressure after four straight defeats, comfortably his worst run since taking the Forest job last September when they were propping up the division below. The journey Cooper led Forest on from that low was nothing short of miraculous. Five months ago, Leicester reached the semi-finals of a European competition but that achievement, too, cuts little ice now.
A glance back at the teamsheet when the clubs last met, at the City Ground in February when Leicester, then the FA Cup holders, were run ragged and dumped out of the competition courtesy of a 4-1 trouncing, tells its own story in terms of how quickly the picture can change.
Cooper is able to call on five of his starting lineup from that day: the same three-man defence – providing the centre-back Scott McKenna is passed fit following a knee problem – plus Ryan Yates and Brennan Johnson, while Rodgers could name an identical starting lineup but for Ademola Lookman, who he was unable to re-sign on a permanent deal over the course of a painfully dry summer.
When it comes to recent transfer business, there is no starker contrast between top-flight clubs. There have been memes of the Forest squad’s supposed 2022-23 team photograph or the Christmas party. They signed a total of 23 players, Leicester just two, one of whom was Alex Smithies, in effect brought in as a third-choice goalkeeper.
During the international break Youri Tielemans described the welcome fresh air of being on duty with Belgium, a few days away from the Premier League grind given the way things have stagnated of late. Rodgers, too, recognised the value of a reset, breaking the cycle of a monotonous run of six straight defeats that left his winless team bottom of the pile.
The prospect of a hard reset, which may have looked a given from the outside, quickly evaporated. Rodgers sought a change of scenery and took his senior staff to Loch Lomond for a few days, time to reflect over a couple of rounds of golf. He also visited a hospice in Belfast.
“Life is put in perspective there,” he says. “You think you suffer in football and you do in terms of results but it is much bigger than that.”
Rodgers has had time to stew on decisions that could ultimately decide his fate. Does he stick or twist with Danny Ward, despite the goalkeeper conceding 11 goals in his past two matches and a league-high 22 in seven games? Does he stand by Wilfred Ndidi in defensive midfield, despite the Nigerian’s wobbly start to the season? Will it be Luke Thomas or Timothy Castagne at left-back?
Rodgers has chopped and changed. Jamie Vardy, who turns 36 in January, and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall are also among those left out in recent weeks. Will Dennis Praet be parachuted in? And can Rodgers even contemplate the possibility of bringing Caglar Soyuncu or Jannik Vestergaard in from the deep freeze in search of a first clean sheet in the league since May? A recall for Vardy does seem likely given the striker, who is yet to score this season, has had a fortnight to limber up.
Wout Faes, Leicester’s only outfield summer signing, will start at centre-back alongside Jonny Evans, who last week celebrated a century of caps for Northern Ireland, even if it was hard for those in the room to keep a straight face when Rodgers insisted Faes impressed on debut at Tottenham, as much as any defender can impress in a 6-2 humbling. The half-time score was 2-2 in Leicester’s past two games, only for things to quickly unravel. Forest, too, could be forgiven for lacking confidence.
“We’ll send the players out to impose our way in the game,” Rodgers says. “The last thing you should do when things aren’t going right for you is to become timid. You’ve got to be aggressive and stick to the plan. If we can do that, we’ve shown in moments in games that we can be right there. If it goes against it, take it, it happens, you’re not going to have it all your own way, and then push on.”
For now, Leicester’s chairman, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, has faith in Rodgers to turn things around and, via a trip to watch sister club Leuven, he will take in Monday’s match at the King Power Stadium.
The Forest owner, Evangelos Marinakis, is not known to have such a steady hand – Cooper became Forest’s sixth permanent manager in four years – and will be concerned by the manner of home defeats to promoted Bournemouth and Fulham, two of their more winnable games.
Last month, Marinakis, who also owns Olympiakos, sacked Carlos Corberán at the Greek club, six weeks after hiring the Spaniard, whose Huddersfield team Forest defeated in last season’s Championship playoff final at Wembley.
At that point Cooper, who is yet to sign a new contract beyond next summer, was untouchable. Rodgers has long forgotten what that feels like.