When Claudio Ranieri surrounded by his triumphant Leicester City squad – lifted the Premier League trophy at the King Power Stadium on 7 May last year, it concluded arguably the greatest story in British sport.
The Italian’s first season in charge, following an appointment greeted with a wave of indifference, ended with a success that defied history, logic, the odds and the game’s natural financial order, as he turned a Leicester team that narrowly avoided relegation into champions. The day Ranieri, in a stadium fuelled by undiluted emotion, led blind tenor Andrea Bocelli to the centre circle to start the title celebrations seemed an age away as Leicester brutally sacked the man who gave the club its greatest moment.
No manager is Unsackable
Ranieri’s reserve of credit was as close to limitless as it gets after performing a sporting miracle to win the title last season. It is the second season in succession a Premier League-winning manager has failed to survive the following campaign.
Ranieri had pulled perennial strugglers from near the bottom to top of the table in the blink of an eye. Ranieri gave Leicester success and a story they would have regarded as fantasy when they appointed him. He took them from 14th to first with a style built on solid defence, fierce organisation and a thrilling counter-attacking style. He was the master man-manager, taking all the pressure and letting his players fly.
Ranieri did not deserve this. He has made mistakes this season, certainly. He has been too loyal to some, too untrusting of others and his frequent tactical changes failed utterly to reverse the team’s fortunes.
It is some compensation that his place in history, both for Leicester and for the English game, is secure forever. He was not the first to lead an unfancied provincial club to the title, but given the huge inequalities in the game, he may be the last. He is, and always will be, a genuine legend.
The worst top-flight title defence in history
After 26 games last year Leicester were top on 53 points, two ahead of Spurs. This season they are 17th after 25 games, with only 21 points. Last season they conceded 36 in the entire 2015-16 (38 games) season as compared to 21 in 25 games this season.
The difference is stark and, very clearly in the opinion of Leicester’s owners, dangerous. The clear and present danger was the threat of relegation.
The recruitment last summer was shockingly bad, £60m spent on Nampalys Mendy, Ahmed Musa and record signing Islam Slimani who cost £30m from Sporting Lisbon. They have all struggled badly and Ranieri has made things worse by his constant tinkering with selections and tactics.
That was in contrast to last year when he left behind his Tinkerman reputation to pick a settled starting XI which was perhaps the greatest strength of their title success. Last season, Ranieri was the ultimate showman with his press conferences and dilly-ding, dilly-dong catchphrase. It took pressure off the players.
Cut away the romance, sentimentality and the memories of last season and they will feel this decision has been taken to stave off the most dramatic fall of any Premier League champions. What is clear is something has changed dramatically, and it is the ominous prospect of going from champions to Championship in 12 months.
Leicester players should hang their heads
There was widespread sympathy for the manager and scathing criticism for the players whose standards have fallen through the floor.
Something has been amiss from day one this season after a summer of big new contracts for the title winners and one very crucial departure. Jamie Vardy, top scorer with 24 goals last season. PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, coveted across Europe, signed a four-year contract. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, signed a five-year deal along with midfielder Danny Drinkwater. Mahrez scored 17 league goals last season but has contributed only three this term, while Drinkwater has failed to reproduce the form that earned him an England call-up.
Leicester’s players appear to have lost the hunger, as well as the element of surprise, that enabled them to climb the mountain last season. And in some cases, such as captain Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, they have simply reverted to the workaday Premier League central defenders they were before they were carried along with an unstoppable momentum last season.
And yet the biggest factor of all may be a player who is no longer at Leicester. N’Golo Kante, Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year last season, took his relentless tackling, work-rate and guile to Chelsea. The Foxes have never been the same – whereas he is on course for another title at Stamford Bridge.
Ranieri was also subjected to a public attack from striker Leonardo Ulloa, who accused Ranieri of betrayal as a move to Sunderland was falling through.
If players have been using Ranieri as a shield for their own shortcomings, then this has been removed. They now have no excuses or scapegoat.
It is abundantly clear, regardless of what has been said publicly, that the bond between Ranieri and the players has perished since their triumph. They are simply not playing for him. Their title success last season was the product of many factors, but most of all, it was a product of a good, regular XI playing at their absolute peak. No one could say that those players have come even close to replicating those performances of late. Performances in 2017, and remember that they haven’t so much as scored a single Premier League goal since the turn of the year, certainly support those claims.
Were Leicester right to sack Ranieri?
Fans are in disgust at Leicester owners’ decision to ruthlessly dismiss the hugely popular 65-year-old Italian, who won the hearts of all supporters with his good humour, class and dignity as he led the Foxes to their maiden title.
With Ranieri in charge, Leicester were going down this season. They have been wretched this season, profoundly awful in every way, and there has been nothing to suggest that their form would change. Leicester started the season badly and have been increasingly dreadful as the season progressed. And yet oddly, they remain competitive in Europe. Almost as if the players are raising their game for the big occasions, but lowering their standards for the day-to-day grind.
Leicester’s fall has been more dramatic than anything they could have foreseen in their worst nightmares. A win for any of Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Hull City this weekend would put the Foxes in the relegation places. Wins for all three and they would be bottom by the time they face Liverpool.
But this is football. Modern football, so cruel and calculating. And this is relegation in 2017. Relegation in 2017 means that your snout is hauled roughly out of the cash trough. It means that your players will leave, the ones who stay will lose interest. And while it’s easy enough to say that you’ll rebuild and return, it’s much, much harder to do.
The manner in which Ranieri has been shown off the premises has prompted questions about basic loyalty and decency in football, and how a manager who made Leicester a worldwide feelgood sports story can be treated in such a way. Faith in him should have been constant and unwavering until the very moment that their demotion was confirmed. He deserved nothing less.
By leaving now Ranieri will only be remembered fondly, which is how he should be. The catchphrase “dilly ding, ding dong” will live on forever on the terraces, but a change was needed and Leicester’s new boss must now try to stop the fairytale turning into a nightmare
Not all fairy tales can have happy endings, and Ranieri has discovered that the hard way.
Full statement by Leicester City in regards of Claudio Ranieri sacking, visit here.
Picture Courtesy: Mirror