Trong Nhan Doan writes about Claudio Ranieri and his failure at Leicester this season.
Leicester City’s head coach Claudio Ranieri was given the marching orders following the 1-2 defeat at the hands of Sevilla in the Champions League.
At the time of Ranieri’s sacking, the reigning champions had slid into the bottom three and failed to score in seven consecutive matches.
The sacking was a heartbreaker for football fans and pundits. Gary Lineker said the sacking is unforgivable given the remarkable feat that the Italian achieved last season. Phillip Neville said it sums up the way the football is going.
Firing Ranieri is as difficult as sacking Arsene Wenger. The former pulled off the greatest upset in football history, and the latter has been at the helm for 20 years amid major pressure in recent years. Nevertheless, Leicester loses its identity and its swagger after just 9 months, and Arsenal is still a major candidate for a Champions League position.
So what went wrong for Ranieri to cost him his job?
Failing with Kante’s replacement
Leicester City found itself a winner in the transfer window. The champions lost only N’Golo Kante but retained other key players such as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
The intention was clear. Ranieri was sticking to the 10+1 winning formula, with Nampalys Mendy inheriting Kante’s role. This was a bold move from the 65-year-old, considering Mendy was more a creative regista during his stint with Nice than a destroyer. The gamble turned out to be a failure, with Mendy failing to live up to the expectation in both his familiar role and his predecessor’s defensive duty.
To exacerbate this, injury has limited Mendy to making only four league appearances this season. With no options available, Ranieri was forced to field Andy King and Danny Drinkwater in the midfield, who are not qualified enough to carry the weight of their departed teammates. This leaves Leicester vulnerable to second ball duels, opening the space for their opponents to exploit.
Breaking the striker partnership
Last season, the duo of Shinji Okazaki and Vardy were a perfect fit for Leicester’s 4-4-2 system. The former has incredible work rate to create the space, while the latter has the pace to receive the diagonal through ball. The partnership started 29 times last season, scoring a combined 29 goals.
This season, the huge price tag for the new signings Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa forced Ranieri to share the playing time in order to accommodate his two most expensive players. The coach’s attempt to mix them up though left a total mess to the system.
Musa is a raw version of Vardy, who prefers to vacate the center and make runs from behind, through the halfspace. However, the Nigerian isn’t as prolific as his teammates, converting only 11.6 percent of his chances compared to Vardy’s 21.2 percent. The Nigerian found himself on the bench this season, starting only seven times in the league so far.
On the other hand, Slimani is a traditional target man who prefers to camp around the 18-yard box, utilizing his strength and physical abilities. His style of play relies upon his teammates feeding him the ball, which doesn’t work in a counter-attacking team like Leicester. This requires Vardy to be the decoy support, whose defensive and build up contribution is significantly less than Okazaki.
With Vardy and Okazaki playing together, Leicester scored 1.78 goals per 90 minutes. The number dwindled to 0.78 goals when the partnership shared the pitch for only 605 minutes this season. Ranieri was punished for breaking the partnership that helped his team scored 68 times last year.
Ironically, in the bottom six, Leicester has the second-best defense. However, their poor offence is sending the team into a relegation battle.
Failing to upgrade the aging back four
The champions came into this season with the oldest back four in the league. Danny Simpson, Robert Huth, Wes Morgan and Christian Fuchs are well in their 30s, while backup Marcin Wasilewski has long been forgotten (also, he is 36-year-old). Astonishingly, Ben Chilwell is the only under-30 defender on the Leicester’s payroll.
While the defensive line was solid for much of last season, it is exposed without Kante to relieve the pressure. The aging defenders are caught out of position too often and found themselves losing the footrace on the break.
Luis Hernandez was the only arrival during the summer, but he was quickly sent packing in January. Molla Wague was a panic-buy on the last day of January, but he hasn’t been featured in the league so far. Huth and Morgan remain the undisputed starters, but they are offering more instability than protection given their performance this season.
Losing Head of Recruitment Steve Walsh was a big blow for Ranieri. Walsh scouted Kante, Vardy, and Mahrez while being responsible for the purchase of Fuchs, Huth, Albrighton and King for no more than $10 million.
This season, with Walsh departing to Liverpool, Leicester found itself with more flops than hits. Except for Wilfried Ndidi and to some extent, Slimani, Hernandez, Musa and Mendy are huge disappointments. The other two arrivals, Ron-Robert Zieler and Bartosz Kapustka, have contributed next to nothing. Zieler is the understudy for undisputed Kasper Schmeichel, while Kapustka has not yet made a league appearance.
Last season, smart transfers fueled the team’s success. This season, it is the other way around.
Inability to control the locker room
Ranieri has always been the Tinkerman for a reason: he shows up to fix what’s wrong with clubs, but he can’t elevate their status. With Leicester, it was the same story. Acting as the manager of the reigning champions, his shy and isolated personality caused his players to sell him out.
On no less than a couple of occasions, Ranieri called out the importance of grinding every single point toward the 40-point mark. It was the same mistake that “The Chosen One” David Moyes made in his ten months at Old Trafford: postioning himself as the underdog.
It killed the momentum of the team, it put the pressure of a conservative approach on the game. It left the team in a limbo between going all-out or limping through the result. Players have complained about their manager being “too preoccupied with opponents rather than playing on their own strengths.”
Ranieri accepted the defeats. He didn’t respond when his team was falling. He didn’t respond when his star players Vardy received questionable ejections. He didn’t respond to the wantaway Leonardo Ulloa. He didn’t respond when he was given the marching orders.
Chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha said he doesn’t expect Leicester to pull off another Cinderella story, but he wants the Premier League title to be the ground for the clubs’ development. When the team is losing everything and the manager doesn’t know what to do, he has the right to relieve his employee.
A fairy tale with a tragic ending. But Ranieri has no one to blame but himself.
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