Losing the dressing room: empty cliché or a real-life phenomenon?
The popular reaction was understandable when news broke at 8pm on Thursday night that Claudio Ranieri had been relieved of his duties at Leicester, just nine months after steering the Foxes to the greatest achievement in their history.
It mainly hovered around incredulity, lamenting a heartless decision to sack the manager who’d achieved the unthinkable last term. But it says a lot that those closer to the club were generally more sympathetic to – if genuinely saddened by – the decision, which was delivered to Ranieri when he touched back down in England following Wednesday night’s Champions League trip to Sevilla.
After all that Claudio Ranieri has done for Leicester City, to sack him now is inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) February 23, 2017
Supporters will never forget the Italian’s work, and will forever love him for it as their greatest manager of all time. Nevertheless, there are some harsh, inescapable realities that Leicester’s vice-chairmen have had to face up to in recent weeks.
Trouble in paradise
Well-informed reports from both the Telegraph and Guardian in February suggested that Ranieri had alienated many in the dressing room with puzzling tactical decisions over the course of the campaign – and not just his players either: they also revealed that the Italian had grown distant with assistant Craig Shakespeare, and squabbled with a member of his backroom staff over the trivial issue of boot studs after a Champions League trip to Copenhagen.
Perhaps most troubling was the claim that someone in the Foxes’ camp had told an opposition player about the bad atmosphere in camp this season, which emerged just a few days after striker Leo Ulloa had declared he felt “betrayed” by Ranieri and refused to play for the club again (so far, the Argentine hasn’t).
Most recently, The Times reported that some of Leicester's players held a meeting as recently as Thursday morning to air their concerns with owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in Seville.
Leicester have been sinking without a trace in 2016/17. They haven’t won in the Premier League since New Year’s Eve, have lost five of their six league games in 2017 without scoring, were knocked out of the FA Cup by 10-man Millwall last weekend and, despite what the final score on Wednesday night may have read in Spain, looked as out of place as a stray cat at Crufts for most of the match.
That they haven't yet dropped into the relegation zone this term says less about their own efforts than the hideous starts to some of their rivals’ campaigns. Yet even that tide has turned; Hull are rebooted in their early days under Marco Silva, while Paul Clement has already hauled Swansea out of the bottom three in his short tenure in south Wales. Indeed, Leicester’s listless 2-0 defeat by the Swans will have been given significant weight in the decision to remove Ranieri.
And people wonder why players stay away from management!!!
— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) February 23, 2017
From the outside looking in it seems perfectly reasonable to believe that the 65-year-old should have been given the chance to turn things around, but with all of the above in mind it’s hard to consider how he might have found a way back. Gradually, this team has become unrecognisable from the one that shocked the world in 2015/16, to the point where it’s not really been his for quite some time.
Each week the Italian had asked himself where to go next, stumbling through various formations and personnel tweaks without fruition. It’s almost irrelevant how much fault should be attributed to Leicester’s players this season; the answer is obvious, and each one knows that this sacking is on them.
Ranieri recently admitted offering too much loyalty to the men who propelled Leicester to the summit last season (eight of whom penned lucrative new contracts in the summer) yet stuck with nearly all of them in Seville. Why? Because the alternatives – Demarai Gray aside, whose lack of regular starts is another grating point of contention – are barely worth considering; Leicester’s displays with their fringe players this season have included a 5-0 humping at Porto in which goalkeeper Ben Hamer made his only appearance of the season (and probably his last for the club), a limping FA Cup win against Derby after a replay and extra-time, followed up with that latest debacle at The Den.
Writing on the wall
Ron-Robert Zieler (£3m)
Luis Hernandez (free)
Nampalys Mendy (£13.2m)
Ahmed Musa (£16.6m)
Bartosz Kapustka (£4.25m)
Islam Slimani (£25.5m)
The bottom line is that change – real change – was needed for Leicester to stop sleepwalking their way to relegation. Their demise this year has not been exaggerated, and where the club hierarchy are concerned there was only one change they could have made at this moment in an attempt to change the toxic atmosphere suffocating their Premier League lives.
On a human level Ranieri doesn’t deserve to be sacked, but that doesn’t mean the decision isn’t the right one with so much at stake. While he rightfully earned the plaudits for last season, it’s equally true that there's blame to be attached to him for the way things have soured since. It is and has to be possible to isolate 2015/16 from 2016/17.
Letting Ranieri go is very much a decision made with the short-term in mind – Leicester have far more deep-rooted issues to address in the summer, namely the horrifying disintegration of their recruitment setup after Steve Walsh’s departure to Everton in the summer.
Yet blindly accepting a drop back to the second tier would have been an alarming dereliction of duties by the club’s powers. Sure, they would have taken such a Faustus-like deal 12 months ago, but that’s a wholly irrelevant argument at this stage.
Leicester can only hope now that their roll of the dice will prove a winning bet. For this to work, the players must snap out of their embarrassing sullen stupor and wake up to the fact that it’s them – and only them – who can get the team out of its current plight.
A very good man has just lost his job, and while some of them may not be shedding a tear at the news, when all is said and done it will be their names – not Ranieri’s – attributed to whatever happens next in this bizarre season.
If it’s managerial change they needed, then let it be shown. We saw the measure of this team’s fabled character when times were good in 2015/16, but there’s arguably even more to be gleaned in how they deal with this latest episode. The blood is on their hands.
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