As Leicester City flirt dangerously with relegation, Claudio Ranieri must be pondering on what went wrong with the Premier League Champions.
This time last year The Foxes were continuing one of the most surprising title challenges in Premier League history. Their unheralded squad, lead by one of the games most unheralded coaches, a man who came so close on numerous occasions only for the title to slip out of his hands. This man is of course Claudio Ranieri; the gentleman, the tinker man of football.
The same man who managed to inspire a club, nay the world to watch and experience one of the most thrilling Premier League campaigns in living memory. The Italian coach took over a squad containing players of relative obscurity in many respects, and managed to hone in on the groups key strengths of the group. These key strengths in character and a tight knit group allowed them challenge the hegemony seen in every league in which a select top 4-6 teams compete for the title, while the rest battle it out never really challenging for anything else other than their place in the league.
The crowning achievement of the season was becoming the Premier League champions for the first time. A miracle in many peoples eyes which has never been seen before, and unlikely something the world will experience for a long time yet. Claudio Ranieri finally received what he had been denied at Chelsea, Juventus & Monaco – a title and praise from every corner of the footballing world. He went on to win a plethora of awards including: Premier League Manager of the Season, LMA Manager of the Year, awarded Grand Officer of the Italian Order of Merit, Enzo Bearzot Award and finally the 2016 Best FIFA Men’s Coach Award.
Unfortunately for Claudio, that was then and this now. In football a single season can swiftly change the fortunes of a club, and a season in Europe can help contribute to that change with a drastic drain of resources on a club. Leicester suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at home to Manchester Unitedthis week, and they looked utterly shambolic on field. They have become a shadow of their former selves, unable break out of their disastrous form and defense of their title, with even Kasper Schmeichel stating the following to Sky Sports:
“We’re the reigning champions but quite frankly it’s been terrible.”
“Every player is hurting. It’s not a situation that is comfortable. It’s time for everyone to stand up and be counted because if we don’t we’re going to end up getting relegated.”
Last seasons leading goal scorer Jaime Vardy has been short of confidence up front, under performing and as a result they have lost their ability to win vital points. Vardy is not the only culprit in their dwindling season, as Mahrez has failed to perform to his brilliant levels which has severely hamstrung the side creatively. Named the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the 25 year old has simply been unable to replicate that form.
Defensively they have been out run and simply exposed as the loss of Kante to Chelsea has left a gap too large to replace. His effectiveness in cleaning up around the backline and supporting his defenders was crucial in their run. Kante is now doing the same role at Chelsea with aplomb and looks certain to win his second Premier League title in a row.
Ranieri has effectively struggled to replace Kante, and is seemingly unable to get the best out of his players as he did last season.
So where did it all go wrong for Ranieri and co?
No one truly expected Leicester to repeat this feat, as this was something unheard of. However no one expected them to be in a relegation dogfight. The top six who were shocked by their average seasons, returned to the summer transfer market and splashed the cash in order to get the players needed to return them to their ‘rightful’ hegemonic positions. A it happens the top 6 have retaken their spots, but so too has Leicester who are back to where they were at the end of 2015 in which they are struggling to survive.
Has the distraction and lure of Champions League football caused more damage then good? Often teams who have never played in the Champions League find themselves prioritizing the wrong competition. As much as the funds received from the Champions League look attractive on the books on the short term, look term missing out on qualifying the season after usually has more drastic effects on the team. (look back to Real Sociedad in 2004 to see what occurred)
Reports have emerged that Ranieri maybe on the chopping block and this would be a sad, unfortunate turn of events for a well respected coach. Thus Leicester find themselves in a complex situation; they are sitting just above the relegation zone in the Premier League, but also have a place in the final 16 of the Champions League. Ranieri must decide whether to fully commit to a once in a lifetime run in the Champions League, or shift his team’s focus back to the Premier League and maintain their survival.
The cash and glory found in a sustained run in Europe is admirable but staying in the top flight is likely to have more benefits for the club and importantly the fans. A drop to the Championship may see the team languish in the lower levels for another 10 years as they did the past.
Leicester City, known for their miracle seasons in the past, must draw upon this to help survive and ensure the long term future of the club and coach. Claudio Ranieri has brought so much to the club in many respects and he deserves to at least have the chance to make amends and see this thing out until the bitter end.