Ruthless Ranieri is no Mr. Nice Guy – and Leicester’s manager has proved it again
Don’t be fooled by the persona – Claudio Ranieri is a brutal old chap when he wants to be.
Leicester might have made it through to the Champions League last 16 as group winners before they’d even kicked a ball against Porto at the Estadio do Dragao, but Foxes fans weren’t expecting to see this game as a declaration of war from their manager.
Six first-team players had been left at home for the trip to Portugal with an eye on improving domestic form; Kasper Schmeichel, Robert Huth, Andy King, Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Jamie Vardy had their feet up for the dreadful 5-0 defeat to Porto on Wednesday night.
Leicester might have made it through to the Champions League last 16, but Foxes fans weren’t expecting to see this game as a declaration of war from their manager
Do one, Ron
But that wasn’t really the story – resting with the league in mind was unsurprising. Yet after a dismal start to their Premier League title defence – just three wins from their first 14 matches of the campaign – Leicester were surely hoping to see this game as a potential catalyst for improved Premier League form. At the very least it was a chance for their fringe men to offer up solutions, or even just get fit – central midfielder Nampalys Mendy, for example, made his first appearance since August 20 after injury.
Ranieri, however, elected to deselect Ron-Robert Zieler in goal and instead pick Ben Hamer for his first Leicester appearance since January 2015. (Zieler, for what it’s worth, hadn’t even missed a Bundesliga minute for over five years at Hannover before signing for the East Midlands side this summer.) The Italian suggested post-match that it was nothing more than giving his squad members valuable game time, but Ranieri was visibly dismayed by those he'd entrusted to impress him on the night.
Danny Simpson, meanwhile – who’d performed Leicester’s pre-match press conference duties – was left out of the starting line-up for the fourth time in six Champions League games. The former Manchester United youth graduate is far from the Foxes’ best player, but he was a virtual ever-present in Ranieri’s team that won the title last season and has surely warranted more than his limited European minutes to date. That a natural centre-back was again taking his place, and again struggled, must have grated.
Form for it
This isn’t the first time that Ranieri has played tough guy as Leicester manager, though – it’s just that, amid the success, his ruthlessness has largely gone unnoticed.
Gökhan Inler was expected to be a fulcrum of Leicester’s suspect-looking central midfield after joining from the latter last summer, but could barely get a kick
Take Gökhan Inler from last season as a case in point: the Swiss enforcer of former Udinese and Napoli fame was expected to be a fulcrum of Leicester’s suspect-looking central midfield after joining from the latter last summer, but could barely get a kick by the season’s end after N’Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater had proved immovable.
Inler had wanted to move on in January, but Ranieri refused to budge in case of injury. In the end the midfielder made only 12 appearances in all competitions and missed out on Switzerland’s Euro 2016 squad.
“I had several enquiries in January, but didn't leave as the manager said he was counting on me,” Inler huffed in March. “But there have been no more games for me since then. It makes me sick, and the stupid thing for me is that I have the Euro 2016 finals with Switzerland this summer.
“I’m in a critical situation. I usually speak diplomatically, but I have to face up to why things are the way they are. There is no point in me trying to sugarcoat the situation.”
Inler, to his credit, had generally remained patient as Leicester’s biggest loser from 2015/16 – he was at Jamie Vardy’s house celebrating the title with his team-mates, and certainly wasn’t a disruptive influence at Belvoir Drive – but it was no surprise when he left for Besiktas in the summer.
He wasn’t the only loser, per se: Ranieri was steadfast in his refusal to play record signing Andrej Kramaric despite a relatively promising debut campaign, made Shinji Okazaki play second fiddle for the good of his team, and only brought Jeff Schlupp, Demarai Gray and Leo Ulloa off the bench to shore up games.
There was nothing wrong with that – after all, that strong management helped his team win the league – but despite Leicester’s struggles this season it’s largely been the same: Gray, for all his impressive efforts as a substitute, still can’t nail down a first-team place, while Schlupp is allegedly eyeing a move to West Brom in January. New signing Bartosz Kapustka, an admittedly-young but £7.5m summer capture who was part of Poland’s Euro 2016 squad, hasn’t yet kicked a ball for Leicester’s first team (“I don't know when he will be ready to play in the Premier League,” said the Italian recently, and very much unconvincingly, amid Telegraph reports that Foxes scouts had never actually watched the player live before signing him.)
Calm it, Claudio
Worryingly for Leicester, these are cracks that last season can’t repair. The reasons for this season’s collapse are manifold – FFT touched on them a couple of weeks ago – and Ranieri has a sizeable task on his hands convincing his squad that, yes, last season really did happen. Kanté aside, these are the same players at his disposal.
The 5-0 defeat to Porto was hardly unexpected given the second-string line-up, but most frustratingly for the Italian it didn’t prove that his deeper squad members are ready to step in and help the Foxes escape their current predicament.
Ranieri now faces his biggest challenge yet as Leicester manager: getting them out of a rut. First he must find a starting XI that resembles something like last season’s crop, then establish a harmony among those who feel they can do better. With the current fragmentation, there will surely be many in the latter category.
Ranieri made his statements in Porto by leaving key men at home and benching those he felt let down by, but now it’s time for the Italian to campaign for the major thing he didn’t need to last season: togetherness. A five-goal humping in Portugal won’t define Leicester’s season, but their manager’s next moves just might.