So it is defeat that greets Brendan Rodgers’ return to the Premier League but rather than expose as folly his decision to trade Celtic for Leicester now, before completing a treble of trebles, it actually does the opposite.
Rodgers plans to use this period to work with his players, to begin implementing his approach, and to assess what he might need come summer. This result and performance demonstrates it will be time well spent.
The seeds of Leicester’s title success were sewn in the climax of the previous campaign, when Nigel Pearson’s team won seven of the final nine games to enact a great escape. That history points to why Leicester and Rodgers did not wish to wait.
Nobody is expecting Rodgers to mount a challenge for the Premier League next season but he does have significant ambitions and wants to hit the ground running. To that end, the coming nine matches could prove crucial again.
For this one he selected a back-three system, changing formations straight away despite just two training sessions. He said he wanted to try to cope with the particular presence of Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu and it was not set in stone as his way forwards. What is fixed is the style he demands, for high pressing and incisive passing.
There were glimpses of that on occasion at Vicarage Road, most obviously with Jamie Vardy’s expertly-taken equaliser, but there were also passages to suggest the instructions of Claude Puel’s reign will require work to shift.
Whatever a manager’s methods the stoppage-time goal that left Leicester beaten was simply poor defending. Kasper Schmeichel exhibited unnecessary haste in kicking, Etienne Capoue intercepted with his head and found Troy Deeney, who hooked on to Andre Gray with Leicester’s backline scattered far apart. Gray’s finish was cool, rolled through Schmeichel’s legs, and off he went, shirt removed as the stadium exploded with noise.
Leicester spent the rest of the match camped in Watford territory and nearly forced another equaliser with Schmeichel up for a corner and staying until the final whistle. When Jon Moss did blow Leicester players sunk to the grass, a sign this was about more than two mid-table teams jockeying for position in March.
Afterwards Rodgers justifiably pointed to Watford’s opening goal inside five minutes looking offside, although Wes Morgan cannot have complaints at paying the price for letting Deeney get across him, and gave a pretty clear assessment of his new team.
‘Our passing was a little bit too slow,’ he said. ‘That is just the players getting used to a different shape and system. Possession is no good on its own, you have to be penetrating. That will develop with training.
‘We spoke at half-time and I thought we were excellent then. Our possession was much quicker, Watford were getting deeper, and if we make the pass we get in. We got that with Jamie’s goal.
‘To lose it at the end is just a case of we have to manage that stage of the game better.’
Before kick-off Rodgers had his name read out by the stadium announcer, inviting heckles from Watford fans who have memories of his sudden departure to Reading in 2009.
Rodgers has left behind similar feelings in Scotland and inside five minutes the home fans, and those watching from Celtic, were gloating. Jose Holebas delivered a free-kick, the ball fell to Adrian Mariappa and Schmeichel had to use all his frame to save. Morgan then blocked Deulofeu’s follow-up.
But moments later Deulofeu whipped in a free-kick from the opposite flank and Deeney glanced past Schmeichel.
In the 13th minute Vardy pounced on a heavy touch by Mariappa to steal the ball and drive for goal only to be brought down by the Watford defender. Referee Moss issued just a yellow. From the free-kick, taken by James Maddison, there was a nasty clash between Vardy and Ben Foster, which left both players down dazed and requiring lengthy treatment. Vardy would later go off, still feeling the effects of a nerve issue.
So Vardy’s goal 15 minutes from time was all the more impressive. Deeney wanted a foul when Harry Maguire got physical to win a header but Moss was unmoved and the ball went to Youri Tielemans. Vardy was playing possum, looking disinterested, but suddenly came alive as Tielemans played a pass that split Watford’s defence. Vardy’s finish, with the outside of his boot, was delightful. He has now scored the first goal in the tenures of the last four Leicester managers.
Leicester could have gone ahead when Maddison twisted into a crossing position and found Morgan, but his header went wide. And Gray made him pay.
‘When you score the goal at the end of the game it is something different,’ said Javi Gracia. Watford are eighth, behind Wolves on goal difference. ‘We have a good balance in the team, and I see in my players they want more, they are ambitious.’ Rodgers would understand that sentiment.