Ranieri is gone, but there were some reasons beyond his control for Leicester's poor form, writes Ste McGovern.
Like a rolling tide, Ranieri could not stem the overwhelming flood that was the relegation battle currently enveloping Leicester City. Maybe that’s the best argument for why he simply had to go. This season has been downright awful and it looks like it’s been out of his control for some time now, like a man trying to row a boat without an oar.
Last season many surmised during the early days of their incredible run that he seemingly had no clue as to what was happening. He had the look of a man who was happy enough with how things were going but for the love of God don’t ask him how. There’s probably some element of truth to that, it would be hard for anyone to fathom it, but at the same time he was the guiding hand throughout it all. He was saying the right things in the media, rewarding his players at ample opportunities, making sure they had free time when necessary. None of these things are revolutionary, but they played a huge contributing factor to the amazing journey.
Ranieri’s tactics were key to their success; moving away from the back three that kept the Foxes up, relocating Vardy from the wing to a more effective central position, and giving Mahrez the freedom to play further up the pitch. Although they had an awful lot of luck, it wasn’t by accident. His gameplan simply worked to a tee.
How often does that happen? To strategise and plan is one thing, but for it to work is another. This season has been almost the complete of opposite of the one preceding it, such has been the horrendous form they have been on. Sometimes the universe just needs to restore balance. According to data analysis undertaken by Daniel Altman, when luck is taken out of the equation, Leicester should have finished fourth. Still an incredible achievement, but it shows how external factors can have an impact. Bobby Gardiner theorised that the same thing has happened this year, just in the opposite direction, and they should be sitting closer to mid-table.
Morality aside, the Ranieri decision was dumb. The table lies - don't ever forget it. pic.twitter.com/ze0ePGQdMp— Bobby (@BobbyGardiner) February 24, 2017
After the close of the most remarkable Premier League season ever, Richard Whittall wrote a piece on what the club should do going forward, and his words seem startlingly prescient now. “Even if your star players stay, chances are they will age, they will slump, regress, pick up injuries. Or, as sometimes happens in football, things that worked last season may not work this season, for no discernible reason. You still need a succession plan for the team.”
That succession plan was somewhat scuppered when head scout Steve Walsh moved to Everton this summer. Mahrez and Vardy remained, but N’Golo Kante, the most important player to their gameplan, was sold to Chelsea. The Toffees then signed Idrissa Gueye, a player whose profile closely matches that of Kante. It is no coincidence that Everton signed him once Walsh was on board.
I’ve seen plenty of people say that the departure of one person can’t possibly explain such a downturn, but it is this writer’s opinion that it has had a bigger impact than we realise. Indeed, Whittall goes on to say “if LCFC’s title run is like this magic souffle that came out of nowhere, even the slightest change can bring it crashing down.” This hypothesis is examined further in a great piece by Gardiner for Paste Magazine, who writes “If Leicester wanted to play the same way they did when Kante was in the side, they would need to get someone in who could emulate his defensive duties,” a la Gueye.
Bobby’s dive into the data reveals that Leicester are failing to turn the ball over in the same areas that Kante was so effective in last season. “Frequent turnovers in the middle of the pitch are essential to Leicester’s attack as they focus on fast transitions.” That much has been evident in the performance of Mahrez and Vardy, who have scored just eight goals between them in 2016-17. The rate at which Leicester was scoring difficult chances last season was unsustainable, and that has been borne out with zero league goals this calendar year.
you're more likely to lose again than team quality suggests. But no evidence reverse is true. Once you win a few in a row, /2— Chris Anderson (@soccerquant) February 24, 2017
And yet, with so much seemingly out of his control in relation to the team’s form, it is Ranieri who takes the fall. The Times have reported that a meeting in Seville between the players and the chairman prompted upper management to make decisive action. With the players no longer behind the manager, they felt they could no longer stay loyal to the man who brought their greatest success. While the players think that the coach is at fault, it is their performances that have ultimately gotten them to this point. It is their job as much as it is Ranieri’s to make that relationship work, but instead of working at it they have chosen to oust the Italian.
"He lost the dressing room" = we're rationalising this any way we can.— Bobby (@BobbyGardiner) February 23, 2017
As much as we might not like how it has gone down, we also realise that this is football. And Ranieri knew that too. He was more aware anyone that the performances weren’t good enough and he would eventually have to take the blame. However if anyone had earned the opportunity to die on their sword as they chose, it was him.
The alternative viewpoint:
Football manager got fired because results & performances were bad and players & board felt he wasn't up to it. The game's gone.— Raphael Honigstein (@honigstein) February 24, 2017