All smiles in May 2016; all frustrations in February 2017.
“My dream died” – Claudio Ranieri. “Don’t you eat that yellow snow” – Frank Zappa. Who let the dogs out?” – Baha Men. At the end of February 2017, those are currently the three most absurd beats the humanity has ever come up with. They have to be – because despite them being around for a while, to this day, nobody has figured out what they’re all about.
Hours after his sacking from a managerial post at Leicester, Ranieri claimed that all he wanted now was staying with Foxes for as long possible. That was his brand new dream – a dramatic downgrade from what he’s been shooting at a year ago, when his lads held the top spot in the Premier League table and played each match as if it was their last.
That’s already a bit ridiculous in it’s own right: after all, few months ago, his players have all proven, without a doubt, that ‘mediocrity’ and ‘just enjoying the league’ are not their middle names anymore. Even with the changes in the squad and extra Champions League burden on their shoulders – they should’ve been able to do much more than ‘being there’.
But there’s more. The Foxes have achieved their dream, after all. They were living it – for several months. And after it’s been made true, all that was left to do with it was to not completely spoil it next season.
Alas – it’s gone. The manager – gone. The form – gone. The victories – gone. Soon enough – their new, downgraded ambition of a safe, comfortable finish might soon be gone too.
To be fair to the boss: this summer, he’s found himself in a scenario that’s only been played out in several editions of Football Manager. His small club has won the league and qualified for the UCL. Big teams were glancing at Leicester’s star players, tempting them with richer contracts at bigger stadiums than the King Power ground. From signings to tactics: there were thousands things to be figured out by the Italian ‘Don’, who’s been probably the first man in the history of football with such an unexpected, dark-horse conundrum on his hands.
The painting will stay – but so could the sour taste in LCFC’s mouth.
As it turned out: Ranieri’s hands were too small to handle the weight of success. Already on the first day of the season, the champions fell 1-2 to Hull – and it didn’t get much better afterwards. Heavy hammerings from Liverpool (1-4), Manchester United (1-4) and Chelsea (0-3) have destroyed the teams’ confidence and sent them right back where they came from in the 2014/15 campaign: a desperate fight for the Premier League survival.
Don Claudio, although still walking in the glory of miracle-maker, is not without a fault. It’s him, who decided to replace N’Golo Kanté (125 tackles won and 156 interceptions in 3027 minutes played last season) with Nampalys Mendy. The latter almost immediately suffered a nasty injury and had to wait until the year 2017 to recover.
In the meantime, the task of winning the midfield battle arm-in-arm with Danny Drinkwater, fell to Daniel Amartey and Andy King. Those two have constantly been shifting in the CM roles, but their defensive returns were scarce. With a combined playtime of 2495 minutes, they’ve won just 41 tackles and made 43 interceptions – roughly 30% of what Kanté has offered last season.
With that element of Leicester’s game in shambles, the whole playstyle of Ranieri’s team has become unsustainable. Last year, their strength lied within very sharp, attacking transition, exploiting the flair of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy’s pace. But without a strong, consistent ability to win the possession back, those two 2015/16 stars have faded into the background.
To make things worse: Claudio did not figure out what to do with LCFC’s decent, but less-than-ideal defensive line. Already during the spring, it was Kasper Schmeichel’s sensational form that kept the efforts of Danny Simpson, Wes Brown, Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs credible. Once the Danish goalie stopped delivering miraculous saves – the team has reached last season’s goals’ conceded tally four months too early.
The reinforcements never arrived. All Foxes have done to improve at the back was signing a second-choice goalkeeper, Ron-Robert Zieler and a right-back, Luis Hernández. The German has made 12 starts so far, keeping only one clean sheet; the Spaniard played nine games, four of which in the Champions League, before being shipped back to Malaga for £1.75 million. The ex-Sporting Gijón lad hasn’t come anywhere close to become an upgrade over Simpson. In other words: one more market failure for the tinkerman.
His star players didn’t help him either. Nineteen months ago, Riyad Mahrez has kicked off his glorious Premier League campaign with a brace against Sunderland – it’s now February and the same Mahrez has only bagged one brace so far, in the Champions League, against Brugge. As it stands, the Algerian has not scored a Premier League goal since November and even in the second half of 2016, he’s been mediocre, picking up 7 goals and 3 assists in 25 games. PFA Player of the Year? No. Not anymore.
Jamie Vardy failed to impress too. Last season, he’s been able to string 11 EPL games with at least one goal scored and break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s insane record. Now, the best he could do is score in two consecutive games – against Swansea and Liverpool, five months ago. Oh – and he also bagged a hat-trick against John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi in the heart of Manchester City’s defence. Well done: but it’s still just Stones and Otamendi.
Today, he and his manager-less, direction-less, confidence-less team is facing Liverpool at home, in a bid to shake off the crisis. One draw and six straight defeats in 2017 have already pushed them into an abyss of relegation zone, one point behind simply terrible sides of Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough. Fortunately for the team: their calendar after today’s game involves: Hull (home), Arsenal (away), Sevilla in UCL (home), West Ham (away), Stoke (home) and Sunderland (home) – the fixtures about as kind as you can get in the EPL.
The question, however, is: who is going to sort these lads out? For the last week, the odds were favouring Roberto Mancini – yet another Italian with an English title under his belt. However: over the last few days, a whole new poll of names emerged: including Guus Hiddink, Martin O’Neill, Alan Pardew and Roy Hodgson. As it stands, though, it’s the old, usual suspects, who seem to have an edge: namely the current LCFC caretaker, Craig Shakespeare and the 2014/15 author of City’s Great Escape – Nigel Pearson.
if it’s indeed Pearson, who takes over after being dismissed a year and a half ago – The Foxes are truly going to complete a full circle of misery, miracles and misery again. And if they lose to Liverpool today – we are all going to have one more reason to wonder whether the last season has only happened in Claudio Ranieri’s dead dream.
Your move, Thaksin Shnawatra. You’ve already messed up by announcing Don’s dismissal in the airport, right after his return from Sevilla. Now it’s time for even tougher decision.