Last year can be defined quite simply as a fairytale season for Leicester City who lifted their first ever English Premier League title. But this year has been anything but that. Hovering dangerously above the relegation zone thanks largely to some awful league performances, Leicester’s owners have been forced into making one of the hardest decisions of their seven year reign. Stick with the manager who delivered an unprecedented title or twist, sacking the manager in favour of a fresh pair of hands who might just be able to guide them to safety. In the end, they chose the latter and yesterday said arrivedechi to Ranieri. The Italian leaves the club as an icon and will always remain as such despite the happenings on the pitch this season. So what went so wrong for Ranieri?
The departure of chief talent scout Steve Walsh to Everton in the summer was a key factor but in truth problems arose before that happened. Last year’s remarkable title win should have had a positive effect on the club but instead planted the seed of doubt in a management team that showed little doubt the year before. To be fair, things had fundamentally changed for Ranieri. He was ridiculed when appointed as manager in the summer of 2015 but rather than letting it get to him, he basked in the low expectations placed on him by the media and fans. Last year’s target was survival not the title after all. Even after his side put together an impressive run that saw them top the table at Christmas, many still expected and called for Leicesters eventual fall. As the weeks and months went on, still no tumble and Ranieri grew more and more confident. He had comfortably shaken off his media nickname of the Tinkerman by sticking with a winning team and formula for a majority of the season. His mantra of when its not broken don’t fix it paid off. The title quickly became theirs to lose and eventually they would reach the finishing line in style with games to spare.
But after the extended celebrations ended and all the champagne had been drunk, the realization that Leicesters world (and the expectations that came with that) had shifted. Leicester were now the English champions and with it drew pressure back on to Ranieri. Few believed that they would compete again for the title but a top six or eight position plus a run in Europe was expected. Ranieri began to have doubts. Was the team he assembled good enough to compete again on multiple fronts? Would the reliable formation of last year still work? Would they be able to replicate the form they found in abundance last season? Those doubts ate away at him all summer. And it’s that doubt that ended up leading to his dismissal.
Over a busy summer, Ranieri added to his squad with several new faces at a hefty cost. Ahmed Musa became the clubs record signing before that was broken a few days later with the capture of Islam Slimani. He also handed lucrative new deals to his heros of last season and also persuaded star striker Jamie Vardy to knock back the advances of Arsenal in favour of staying with the club. On the outside everything looked set for a promising title defence. But the cracks that began to appear in the final months of last season were beginning to reappear. Was aging captain Wes Morgan able to compete again at the highest level? Did Marhez and Vardy have their heads turned by potential summer moves? How would they cope with losing Kante to Chelsea?
The latter was key as the diminutive midfielder had played a key role in their surge to the title. But he was just one of eleven in that team so replacing, although difficult should have been an achievable task. His replacement, Nampayls Mendy has not quite worked out mostly because the Leicester side have been unable to work out how to play without Kante in the team. This is primarily due to Ranieri reverting back to his old self and tinkering with the team formation – one week with three at the back, the next with a diamond in the middle. Confusion amongst the ranks has led to mistakes which cost Leicester dearly in too many games during this campaign. Doubt made Ranieri tinker with his winning formula and experiment mid season. His early season faith in his title winning side was a mistake and the decision to focus on the Champions League (with the belief that his side would rebound in the league after qualifying) a bigger one. Having achieved progression from the Champions League group stage by the end of November, Ranieri must have believed that his side would transform their European form into domestic form but that never materialized. Key defeats in December to Sunderland and Bournemouth and in January to Chelsea, Southampton and Burnley sent the reigning Champions spiralling down the table. In addition, a resurgence in form by the teams below them, most notably Hull and Swansea under new management must have given Leicesters board pause for thought but could they do the unthinkable?
In the end they could and had to. Football is very much a business nowadays and with it comes responsibility to protect that business when faced with significant financial implications. Dropping to the Championship may not have been the worse thing in the world for Leicester from a footballing prospective but the financial impact of not being in the Premier League would have been. Unfortunately despite all that he had achieved in one remarkable season, Ranieri had to go. Was it the right thing to do morally? No. Ranieri achieved the impossible last year so deserved to stay but to the owners sentimentality could play no part in their final decision.
Ranieri’s replacement will be appointed swiftly with a clear mandate of remaining in the Premier League. Further progression in the Champions League would be a bonus and with an away goal scored against Seville in their 2-1 first leg defeat that is still possible. But staying up is the most important thing for the club now. For Ranieri he will take time to reflect before making his next move. He will ponder what went so wrong and what he could have done to change things. Doubt about his abilities may also creep back in but for a coach who is now classified as a title winning one his stock has risen dramatically across Europe. Ranieri will be back in management before long but the big question will remain – will he be able to subdue his doubt and resist the temptation to once again become the Tinkerman.