Just nine months after guiding Leicester City to an unprecedented Premier League title, Claudio Ranieri finds himself being shut out of the club at which he will forever be a legend.
In a cruel twist of fate, it is the climax to a season long curtailed by expectations of what would follow on from that great triumph. Even more so the startling fall from grace that has seen Ranieri and the rest of the squad suffer enormously at the hands of fellow clubs and the press.
The personnel changes instigated over the summer months added to the weight of expectation, with many seeing the heavy investment by Ranieri as necessary preparation for life as champions of England looking to defend their crown as well as their forage into the unknown Champions League. £29 million spent on Islam Slimani dwarfed the record signing of two years previously; a paltry £9 million parted with to bring Andrej Kramaric to the King Power Stadium. Slimani has thus far failed to announce himself on the Leicester stage with any consistency.
But it was the loss of N’Golo Kante that hit the Foxes so severely. The crucial anchor of the midfield who covered so much ground and allowed the rest of the midfield freedom to roam and attack was sold to Chelsea for £30 million as the stock of the Champions’ personnel rose. Although replacements were employed, it is testament as to how crucial the Frenchman was that he is now running away with another Premier League medal as part of Antonio Conte’s Blues.
The issues of the other headline grabbers in the squad also raised questions about Ranieri. Rampaging goal scorer Jamie Vardy and reigning PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez lacked the devastation and conviction that saw them link up to brilliant effect over the course of last season; and even old warhorses Robert Huth and Wes Morgan looked less than sturdy.
The Champions League
In much the same manner that no one expected Leicester to win the league last year, progression through the Champions League was doubted. Perhaps more so when their compatriots in the group were revealed as FC Porto, FC Copenhagen and Clube Brugge; veterans of the big stage in their own right. Leicester upsets the odds once again and topped the group.
Ranieri has just cause to put his efforts into the Champions League run. He could not have foreseen whether the Foxes would ever compete in the champions league again so had to make the best of his efforts.
However the detriment to the focus on European competition is that the focus is lost on the Premier League. Ranieri could be forgiven for assuming that his squad could contend with both competitions, especially with the reinforcements acquired over the summer.
Nonetheless, the bulk of his squad were retained. The likes of Vardy, Mahrez, and Marc Albrighton have to shoulder some of the blame for failing to capitalise on seasons and summers that have perfectly massaged their ego’s.
Is there a flaw in the Foxes tactics?
The 4-4-2 formation applied by Ranieri last year worked due to the high pressing game of his players. In Shinji Okazaki, Albrighton, Kante and others, the Italian had workhorses to send out. The pressure applied at the top often meant that attacks were formed from opposition mistakes, leaving the defence to sit high and squeeze the attacks out.
Without Kante, even as a tackler and runner, the opposition advantage was worked through the midfield, which left Kante’s replacement Ahmed Musa, and Danny Drinkwater overrun.
Further back, the defence’s militant line and even more militant agression seemed to have lost its edge. The way it was sliced open against Manchester United last month for Juan Mata’s goal (in which Morgan played him onside and Christian Fuchs failed to track him) was one of a number of errors made to suggest the core of the Foxes stability is failing.
Can all this be blamed on Ranieri?
Fundamentally, no. He must hold his hands up at the signings who (Demerai Gray aside) have failed to shine in the wake of the Foxes success, especially at such cost as these.
Further to this, Ranieri’s experience should have given him the abilities to man manage his squad in the midst of their busy run of fixtures. His tenures at Chelsea, Juventus and Napoli were ones in which multiple competitions were the norm, and big squads were necessary. He has failed in his duties to manage Vardy and Mahrez whose almost relentless run of club and international games have, in all probability, caught up with them.
Like the rest of the squad, they should have been better prepared for the inevitable test of domestic and European football, and taken steps to ensure the right quality of player was brought into the champions squad.
But that may be all he can be blamed for. Of the XI who regularly started last season, only Kante was sold in the midst of media-centric dogfights as to where the likes of Vardy, Mahrez, Drinkwater, Schmeichel would end up. They all stayed. The retention of this group meant that the core of the squad was not lost and was not tampered with, meaning they can all take fault for the nature of the Foxes downfall thus far.
We must not forget that they are still very much alive in a Champions League run which has seen them win the hearts and minds of the European heavyweights as well as slaying others. They are only 2-1 down to Sevilla, having already negotiated the away leg. The best form they have displayed all season has been in Europe, mainly thanks to Ranieri’s prioritisation of the competition, and will doubtless play without any reservations or belief that they have something to lose.
But they will have to do this without Ranieri at the helm. In a move that has drawn universal criticism from pundits to players, the board has concluded that all Ranieri’s efforts and achievements over the past 18 months mean nothing. The boards own high standards of why the club can expect to achieve on a regular basis has led them into a sense of delusion that has had devastating consequences on Ranieri. He came in to help them survive, he leaves having led them to greatness, and been made to pay for it.