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Rodgers analyses the importance of Jonny Evans's underrated role at Leicester

Published on: 06 May 2021

When Leicester City go to Old Trafford on Tuesday evening, their senior centre-back will line up for the away side but there are those who believe he should be wearing red rather than blue. "Jonny Evans should be a Manchester United player now, of course," said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recently.

Evans made almost 200 appearances for United before being sold for £6m by Louis van Gaal in the summer of 2015. It remains a curiosity that the man once described by Sir Alex Ferguson as "arguably the best defender in the country" spent what were ostensibly the peak years of his career at West Brom. Now he is aiming for glory again with Leicester.

Next week it is the FA Cup final. Next season it will surely be the Champions League for the first time in eight years for this former Northern Ireland international. At 33, he has been instrumental in taking the Foxes to third place in the Premier League table.

For Brendan Rodgers, it has only confirmed what he knew all along.

"I had always admired Jonny from afar, watching him at United," Rodgers tells Sky Sports. "To play the games he did there at a young age tells you everything about him. I would not say anything has surprised me from working with him. I knew he was a top player.

"I see someone of great maturity. He knows the game at the highest level. He is a deep thinker about the game, a super intelligent guy. You can see that he watches football."

Rodgers is an admirer, then. But isn't everyone these days? Former England captain John Terry is at Aston Villa now but that did not stop him taking to social media to extol praise.

"How good is Jonny Evans? The most underrated defender in the Premier League."

Terry makes for an appropriate voice to join the growing throng of admirers. Rodgers sees plenty of similarities between the two players in terms of their distribution of the ball.

"If you see him in his build-up play, he reminds me in that way of John Terry. John was very much of a similar ilk. John would play left-sided centre-half, open up on his left foot and drill it 60 or 70 yards. Then he would turn on his right foot and do exactly the same.

"Jonny has that quality. He can drill the ball either side. It is a great quality. He has a great technique but he is also able to see those passes as well. He is simple in his game but it is super effective."

Evans regularly plays short passes to his left and right. But those safer choices come only after checking for options further forwards. When the ball is on, he will play it - as he did when finding Kelechi Iheanacho for the winner against Crystal Palace.

But it was another aspect of his game that stood out that evening.

Wilfried Zaha's threaded pass exposed Leicester's high line and Jairo Riedewald was able to break the offside trap. The Dutchman seemed certain to have a one-on-one chance against Kasper Schmeichel but seeing Christian Benteke free to his right, opted to pass instead.

It looked like a good decision - a tap-in for his team-mate. But Evans had not given up on the situation, racing back quicker than his colleagues to intercept the pass, saving a certain goal.

"I spoke to all the players about that," says Rodgers, speaking to Sky Sports over a Zoom video call before Leicester's home game against Newcastle United on Friday Night Football.

"You see his determination to get back, but also the reading of it. He is not going to the guy on the ball, he is seeing the guy on the ball look across and that tells him that he is going to look for a pass. He goes to the passing line as opposed to going to the man.

"That is because he is a thinker. He has the brain of a top player.

"You can highlight the goals we scored on the evening but if you don't have that hunger and that sheer desire to get back and stop a goal then you are missing something in your team.

"It was a wonderful demonstration, as good as a goal."

That was an example of Leicester's high defensive line being breached, but that approach has been fundamental to the team's transformation into one of the Premier League's best.

When Rodgers arrived at the club in 2019, he saw that as an area that needed to be improved. Harry Maguire departed that summer and Evans was the man who took responsibility for ensuring Leicester would defend in a more proactive way.

"One of the first things that I identified when I came in here was that the defensive line was too deep," Rodgers explains. "It was so important for us that we shortened the pitch because the pitch is only as short as the defenders make it.

"But with that you need a leader in there who can keep the line moving. He has done that brilliantly for us because the other boys are not natural talkers, not natural communicators. But he understands what we want. He really shortens the pitch for us.

"He keeps the line up high. He controls."

Even now, these are qualities that would be useful at Manchester United. But Evans is needed at Leicester too. His impact - on the pitch and off it - can hardly be overstated.

"He prepares himself as a top-class professional," adds Rodgers.

"He is also a gentleman who sets an example and is a wonderful role model for the players here. He gives them a lot of confidence because he has been at that level. They see how well he prepares, how honest he is to the game and how focused he is on winning.

"It is that type of player that allows this club to continue to grow."


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