As the world mourned the unfortunate axing of Claudio Ranieri from his post as the Leicester City boss, Facebook timelines of millions across the world were filled to the brim with abhorrence for the struggling Foxes. The club was rebuked by many for having brought down the guillotine on someone who had achieved the impossible and do what no one had ever done before- win the Premier League. The task was obviously herculean, but it was Ranieri’s ability to transform nobodies and big club rejects into league Champions that turned the far-fetched dream into tangible reality. The transformation, in itself was something that would never have lasted forever, the sacking confirmed the ruthless nature of the Premier League.
Leicester were never meant to be what they are. Last season’s heroics were only the peak of what could have been accomplished and judging by the way the Foxes are currently floundering, they are probably where they belong.
Mere 298 days prior to proving to the world that miracles do happen, Ranieri had raised the bar for players that had never experienced whatever that was transpiring at the club. Riyad Mahrez was crowned the PFA Player of the Year, Jamie Vardy missed out on the Golden Boot by a single boot, while Danny Drinkwater won an England national team call-up, thanks to Ranieri’s ability to get the most out of them. Leicester were made to play to their strengths- keep a deep defensive line, play long balls forward and allow Vardy to run onto them by harrying the opposition backline throughout the game. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth acted as the combative centre-halves, commanding the defensive players and determined enough not to let anyone past them. Ranieri thrived on fielding almost the same line-up in every game and the minimum amount of fiddling went a long way in bringing about stability and certainty about how Leicester went about their business.
While no one expected Leicester to retain the title this season, very few expected them to be where they are. That raise in standards had proved that Leicester were probably capable of finishing inside the top ten, if not qualifying for Europe. The very first game of the season itself suggested that teams had figured out the Leicester way of playing. Hull sat deep in their own half, forcing Leicester to don the role of the much-heralded favorites for the game. They were happy to play on the break and grabbed an almost smash-and-grab 2-1 win at the KC Stadium that day, proving that Ranieri’s men weren’t as invincible as they seemed last season.
The likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City switched flanks more often and passed the ball about quickly, dislodging the organization of the Leicester defense. The games yielded heavy losses for the Foxes, who were reeling from the departure of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea and the influence he had in the heart of the park. Ranieri’s attempts to replace the Frenchman with Nampalys Mendy went in vain as the former Nice midfielder struggled with injuries throughout the season before January. Kante’s impeccable reading of the game, ball-winning abilities and tendency to cycle it forward with purpose was something that forced the likes of Mahrez, Vardy and Marc Albrighton to play in a deeper position than usual. This, in a way, forced Ranieri into changing his system to some extent after the prevalent one had won him the title.
The presence of the Champions League too provoked Ranieri into wandering from what had been aspects of the triumph. The acquisitions of the likes of Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa, Bartosz Kapustka and Mendy meant that Leicester had a bigger squad to play with, contrary to the one that won them the league. Ranieri put out the same team in almost every game and he got the same result in every single game. The burden of the Champions League meant that the stability of the side was lost.
This, in turn, forced Ranieri into changing the formation. So much so, that after Leicester’s defeat to Southampton, Ranieri went onto admit that it was his own mistake that led to the 3-0 loss. It was the switch to the 4-4-2 diamond, after having fielded a 3-5-2 against Chelsea in the previous game that brought about an uncertainty in terms of how to play the game.
While the decision to sack the former Roma and Juventus boss sounds hardly believable, Leicester have won just two Premier League games since November, losing to the likes of Swansea, Bournemouth and Watford. And this clearly isn’t what a side that won the league would bear the brunt of, considering how they have fallen in the table. Three weeks ago, relegation would probably have sounded a bit too much, but Leicester seem to be facing the drop for genuine reasons now.
And the sacking of Ranieri wasn’t an indication of how impatient and cruel the football world is, but is a sign of why clubs prefer their own safety and assurance above anything else. The Italian may still be treated to be a god-like figure in the city, but he was failing to get the most out of his players, after having raised their bar himself. Leicester had lost the aura of being an audacious side, who play with utmost belief and commitment on the pitch. And the manager is always the one to blame when things aren’t going a team’s way. He had lost the trust of the players, who were reportedly turning against him and his experimentation with the system meant that even he was unsure about how to go about things.
Leicester could ill-afford to go down and they could well have finished inside the red zone, if Ranieri had been in charge. The recent 3-1 win over Liverpool saw the Foxes adhere to the style that had won them the league and they had, if you notice carefully, had gone back to sticking to their own basics of direct football. There was a willingness to prove themselves to the new boss- Craig Shakespeare whenever they got the ball and the new-found belief reflected clearly in the way that they worked hard and closed every Liverpool player down throughout the game. Much like how students begin to raise their levels to impress and win the trust of the new teacher, Leicester players were doing the same at the King Power against Jurgen Klopp’s side. There was a renewed energy about them and it seemed as if they had a point to prove- something they had already done under Ranieri.
We are quite likely to see Leicester players approach games with a similar amount of vigour and venom as last season. People have begun to think of them as being proper relegation contenders and proving the non-believers wrong has been a big feature of Leicester’s recent history. Players felt as if they had nothing to prove to anyone, when Ranieri was in-charge this season. While this is the right time to sack managers, as far as the relegation threatened teams are concerned, a new beginning will certainly do no harm to the Foxes.