By Will Jennings
It was last Thursday morning in Seville that sealed Claudio Ranieri’s fate. Interestingly, it was not Leicester City’s footballing performance that constituted the reason for his evocative downfall. After his traitorous players restricted their prestigious European opponents to a laudable two goals – managing to score one vital away goal themselves in the process – they betrayed their brilliant Italian manager, meeting with the club’s volatile owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha to plot his demise. King Power? More like Player Power.
Such a meeting was a damning indictment to this squad of players, a group who captured the hearts of the nation last season through their collective spirit, unity and teamwork. Leicester may be a team in disarray this year, but Ranieri did not deserve this. Nine months on from his remarkable triumph, his own players forced him out of the door. Shameful.
The problem has its roots deep in last summer. Following the Foxes’ fixating Premier League exploits, the club’s owners impetuously presented each member of the squad with a BMW sports car worth £100,000. Ranieri protested, asserting that such a gift – in combination with the considerable pay-rises his players received – would undermine notions of hunger, drive and determination within his team. Almost a year later, the now unemployed Italian’s sentiments have been vindicated.
Leicester’s season has been farcical at times, resembling vulnerable relegation candidates rather than hungry title challengers. Danny Drinkwater has struggled, unable to forge the influence he was able to manufacture so significantly during the last campaign’s glory. Jamie Vardy has faltered in front of goal, delineating none of the clinical finishing he became so profoundly associated with last term. Riyhad Mahrez appears to have been borrowing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
This side have conjured up none of the magic they produced so abundantly last season. They lack defensive cohesion and organisation, the antithesis of what came before through the likes of captain Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. They lack creativity going forward, failing to penetrate sides with the efficacy of last term. They lack belief.
But the Tinkerman shouldn’t have gone. While in objective, pragmatic, football and business-minded terms, his dismissal appears justifiable – he left the champions in the relegation zone – we are fundamentally human. Not one person in the footballing nation will have responded to Ranieri’s demise without emotions of empathy and poignancy. It didn’t need to end this way.
Where’s the respect? Where’s the gratitude from the owners, the ability to show appreciation towards a man who pioneered the top flight’s greatest ever triumph? Ranieri’s Leicester remained in the Champions League, just a couple of goals away from miraculously progressing into the last eight. He deserved the opportunity to lead their European odyssey until it came to its eventual end.
He deserved the chance to remain at the club indefinitely, resigning on his own terms when he felt the time was right. He deserved the chance to manage the club next season in the Championship – if he took them down – and seek to lead another title-winning campaign. He deserved respect.
But his players thought otherwise. They let him down. While their lack of effort this season has been palpable and their suspicion of their once-heroic manager has manifested itself almost pervasively, last Thursday was the final straw. Player power won.
The performance against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool said it all. The Foxes played with the boldness, fearlessness and enterprise of last season, energetically and hungrily pressing the German’s developing side and romping their way to a 3-1 win. As a team, they ran ten kilometres more than they have in any other game all season. In doing so, their lack of trust in Ranieri became conspicuous to even the least cynical of observers.
The reasons behind Leicester’s such acute downfall are manifold. They miss the brilliant N’Golo Kante, whose relentless tackling and defensive protection balances and strengthens sides so well. Ranieri’s summer signings and tactics have at times been questionable, recruiting the ineffective Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani and failing to deploy the pace and youthful dynamism of Demarai Gray on the wing. Only Wilfred Ndidi has settled. Vardy and Mahrez have failed to work in the glorious tandem they generated last term. Pity.
But it’s the players’ visible lack of effort that has been most fatal. They lack the hunger and determination of last season, instead performing with passivity and apathy despite the increasing severity of their position. After failing to perform so relentlessly, they then actively facilitated the ousting of their history-making manager. They should be ashamed.
Where does the club go now? While Leicester may be in talks with the divisive Roy Hodgson, the appointment of a new manager at this stage appears futile. The team picks itself, with the eleven that started against Liverpool surely constituting their most effective side. Interim manager Craig Shakespeare should be handed the job until the summer.
But that’s not the point. Leicester will remain in the Premier League, almost inevitably re-finding their mojo now that Ranieri has departed. They will remain a successful club of considerable stature. The players will almost certainly rediscover that commitment and desire that characterised last season’s glory when a new manager comes in. The complacency and self-satisfaction amongst this squad under Ranieri will be replaced by hunger and drive. The Italian will be looking on glumly. After that glorious triumph of 2016, last week’s events provide us with a sobering reminding that in the modern epoch, player power will never be superseded.
Photograph: Google Images