Thank you Claudio.
2017 may have been dreadful thus far, but 2016 will be a year every Leicester fan will never forget. For 133 years we had never even come close to winning the league and the story of last season’s 5000-1 miracle will be told over and over again and for that Claudio Ranieri will always have a place in our hearts. He turned a team of rejects, relegation scrappers and journeymen into the most unlikely Premier League champions ever seen and we love him.
It’s strange, but not entirely surprising, to look at the initial reaction from fans and pundits alike when Claudio was appointed. Nigel Pearson had orchestrated the greatest of Great Escapes, 7 wins out of 9 to keep the foxes in the top flight. But after controversy surrounding his son Ben (the worst player I’ve ever seen in a Leicester shirt) and the ‘racist Thai orgy’, both Pearsons were sacked. Crucially though, the backroom team of coaches Craig Shakespeare and Steve Walsh were retained by the club, some vital stability in the turbulent time. Claudio’s appointment was met with widespread scepticism, a big name, but a man with no experience of relegation battles or struggling sides. Not that Leicester would ever be in a relegation battle as in turned out. Ranieri was quickly installed as the favourite to be sacked first and City one of the favourites to go down.
The popular theory is Claudio continued the system that Pearson (eventually) found successful. This is true to some extent, new signings Christian Fuchs, Shinji Okazaki and, in particular, N’golo Kante blending well into the team, with the spirit and determination of the Great Escape still evident. However, Ranieri’s reinvention of the classic 4-4-2 allowed much more freedom for PFA Player of the Riyad Mahrez, who’s creativity and flair was just as important as Jamie Vardy’s goal rush and Kante’s tireless workrate. Leicester went from an open, attacking side in the first half of the season to a tight defensive unit in the second, eventually winning the league by a massive 10 points. Claudio’s wit and humour was sharp contrast to Pearon’s abrasiveness with the media, famously providing the squad with pizzas after their first clean sheet against Crystal Palace in November. Many more pizzas would’ve been required, with 12 more clean sheets coming after Christmas.
Ranieri was positive in every interview, never complaining about a refereeing decision, never blaming his players in defeat and always charming in his press conferences. The press gave him a standing ovation after the title was secured, he lifted the trophy alongside captain Wes Morgan. An emotional moment for Leicester fans but arguably even more emotional for Claudio, the man who always finished second. Second with Monaco in 2014, second behind Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan as manager of Juventus in 2009 and Roma in 2010 and second with Valencia in 2000. The Italian was fondly remembered at Chelsea, qualifying for the Champions League on a shoestring budget and finishing second (again) in 2004 with their highest points total for 50 years, before being harshly sacked. Often a team Ranieri had built went on to higher success, like Chelsea and Valencia, who both won league titles the season after he left. But now, at the age of 64, he finally had the right end to his fairy-tale. If only that had been the last page of the story.
The summer wasn’t great for Leicester. Midfield linchpin Kante was sold to Chelsea for £30 million and Head of Recruitment Steve Walsh, the man responsible for the signings of discovery of so many key world class players in his career, was also let go. But fans had some expectations with £70 million spent on the likes of Ahmed Musa, Nampalys Mendy, Ron-robert Zieler and Islam Slimani. In hindsight, these signings were appalling. Slimani’s struggled with injuries and Zieler’s been average as cover for Kasper Schmeichel but Mendy and Musa have crumbled under the heavy weight of their price tag. No one could have replaced Kante, but Mendy hasn’t come close, unable to play a straightforward pass or run with the ball. Musa showed flashes of promise, especially scoring twice against Barcelona in pre-season, but has been extremely disappointing, getting the point where his laziness cost the foxes the first goal in Seville, a game which Musa should never have played in. There’s no doubt the Claudio has to shoulder some of the responsibility for this waste, as well as the lack of strengthening in key areas such as at the back, with the signing of defender Luis Hernandez proving completely pointless with the Spaniard back in Spain on loan by January.
Musa represents what has been another issue: player unrest. The squad were reportedly unhappy at Ranieri’s decision to start Musa ahead of Demari Gray in Seville, at this is not an isolated incident. There have been reports in respectable media outlets regarding confusion over tactics, a last minute formation change before the away tie in Copenhagen and a rift between Claudio and Craig Shakespeare. I’ve personally seen players gesturing to the bench, unsure of what position their supposed to be in, like Christian Fuchs against Everton in December. If rumours are to be believed, some senior players spoke to chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha asking for Ranieri’s removal. This really would be a disappointing show of disloyalty to the manager but it must make us wonder, what has been going on in the dressing room?
Whilst the tactics have been questionable at times, the effort of some players has been way below par. Jamie Vardy has shouldered some blame, but the key problem is leadership. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel is the only voice in the team. There’s no one organising or encouraging, every time a goal goes in, heads go down. Wes Morgan is effectively an armband carrier, offering very little other than poor defensive performances . But again, this shows another factor of Ranieri’s downfall: loyalty. Sticking with the same team nearly every week works fine when a side is winning, but despite very poor performances he stuck with the same centre back pairing for every league game this season. There’s a famous saying; ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’ and that’s more the appropriate here. Not giving players like Yohan Benalouane a chance really does make you question whether Claudio is too loyal, too nice to his squad. Repeating the same line ‘we fight’ after every defeat frustrates the supporters, who know we are not playing well. When Kasper Schmeichel came out after the 3-0 loss the Manchester United and said we weren’t good enough, the fans applauded him. Ranieri should’ve done the same, but unfortunately it seems his unflappable loyalty to the players wasn’t shared.
However, whilst the players must shoulder some of the blame, many Leicester fans will tell you something had to change. Neutrals can (and have) scoffed all over social media, incredulous that Leicester dare aim higher than 17th place, that the supporters are ungrateful for expecting anything another than poor performances. The argument that Leicester fans would have settled for this if offered ‘winning the league followed by relegation’ is ridiculous. Yes, no one was expecting another title, but the club have missed out on the biggest opportunity for growth in their history. Never again will City get the chance to tempt world-class players with the offer of Champions League football. It could have been the opportunity to build a side for years to come but that opportunity has long gone.
Without question the foxes will be relegated if they continue in their current form, but the performance in Sevilla could have been a catalyst for that change. The news of Ranieri’s departure would have come as much less of a shock following the dismal performance against Millwall in the FA Cup, but the result in Seville gave the supporters hope. Sadly, Claudio will not get the chance to turn the season around but Craig Shakespeare, arguably one of the best coaches in the country hopefully will. Time will tell if the board made the right decision but there’s one thing that every Leicester fan would agree that will never change:
Claudio, we’ll always love you. Thanks for the incredible memories.