Jamie Vardy’s late goal against Sevilla on Wednesday had seemed to have brought hope to Leicester City in the Champions League, but evidently not enough. A 2-1 deficit is not insurmountable in the second leg but that away goal was pretty much all that has gone right this year, and on Thursday evening came the news that Claudio Ranieri had been sacked, a convenient scapegoat for the club’s ills.
There was always going to be some sort of adjustment after winning the league title in such unexpected fashion last season, but few expected it to be as difficult as this. On Monday Leicester hosts Liverpool. By then it could be bottom of the Premier League table.
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For most of the first half of the season, things didn’t seem to be going too badly. Leicester bobbed along in lower mid-table and few of the new signings seemed to have settled, but its Champions League form was good, securing progress as a group winner before a 5-0 defeat to Porto in the final ground of games. But since the turn of the year, its form has taken a significant turn for the worse. It has lost five league games in a row and hasn’t scored in six, sliding to fourth from the bottom. With Hull and Swansea both resurgent, relegation has become a distinct possibility.
Inevitably, Ranieri has found himself under pressure. This is just how things are in modern football. No matter that last season he oversaw the unlikeliest league champions in English history. As soon as results go bad there is only one response, and that is to fire the manager. Premier League titles don't buy the time they used to: Ranieri follows Jose Mourinho in being sacked before the end of the following season. The one before that, Manuel Pellegrini, announced midway through the next but one season that he would leave at its conclusion, and the one before that, Sir Alex Ferguson, retired immediately. The one before that, Roberto Mancini, was ousted after losing the following season's Cup final.
There are many reasons for Leicester’s decline, most of which come down to little more than regression to the mean. In 101 league games since the club returned to the top flight, it has taken 143 points. That is more than would realistically have been expected on the opening day of 2014-15. An average of 1.4 points per game is more than enough to keep a club comfortably safe from relegation, which would have been a realistic ambition. But what that average doesn’t explain is the distribution of points, 103 of them coming in just 47 matches: the nine games in April and May 2015 under Nigel Pearson that saw Leicester improbably survive relegation and the next 38, under Ranieri, in which the title was won.
Was Ranieri the eccentric mastermind who plotted that triumph? Is he the hapless clown unable to stop this season’s decline? If he is the latter than he must logically have been the former, unless we’re to believe that the problem is the erosion of Pearson’s influence. And if he was the former, that would suggest he was due time to arrest the slide. Or perhaps the manager is almost irrelevant, the results just occur, and he is the useful hook on which to hang post-hoc rationalizations of what has happened? Which is also hardly an argument to sack him. (The thought experiment, anyway, is interesting: if you had 108 points to distribute over two seasons, who would opt for 54 and 54 and two seasons of comfortable mid-table finishes rather than 81 and 27, a league title and probable relegation?)
There might be a short-term uplift from sacking Ranieri, but to what end? Is there a better manager waiting around? One who, say, won the league with the same group of players last season?
There is talk of unrest in the squad, but then there always is when results go badly. Ranieri was criticized for remaining too loyal to the same core of players, but last season his capacity to keep picking the same side was perceived as one of his strengths. It’s not difficult to pinpoint what’s gone wrong: N’Golo Kante has been sold–and looks like winning the league again this season with Chelsea–while half a dozen players who simultaneously produced the best seasons of their careers, feeding off each others’ confidence, have reverted to being what they were for most of their careers: lower-league strugglers, and they’re now being dragged down by each other’s doubts.
Vardy has stopped scoring goals –only five this season as opposed to 24 last, and three of them came in one game against Manchester City. Riyad Mahrez has three goals this season as opposed to 17 last season. Defenses have figured them out (Mahrez looked dangerous again playing for Algeria in the Cup of Nations) and they haven’t been good enough to adapt.
The two center backs, Wes Morgan and especially Robert Huth, have had rotten seasons, looking slow and cumbersome. Danny Drinkwater is not the same player without Kante alongside him. Only goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and, perhaps, Christian Fuchs, have played at anything like the level of last season. Was that really Ranieri’s fault?
Perhaps replacing him would stop the rot, perhaps it would shock the team into a reaction that would drag them away from the relegation zone. But it could only be a short-term measure, and the danger is that Leicester then gets stuck in the same spiral of sacking managers once a season that has blighted Sunderland. Put bluntly, last season was a freak and this is probably the level of this group of players. Getting rid of Ranieri doesn’t change that.