The hottest seat in the Premier League finally jettisoned its occupant. Claudio Ranieri was sacked less than a year after leading Leicester City to an improbable Premier League title. As hard as it is to go from a relegation candidate to a title winner, it is even harder to go back to a relegation candidate. The media and critics will point to a number of factors, like the players growing complacent, the league’s top teams improving, and the pressure of Champions League football. All of these are true, but there is one element that underlines all of these. That is that Ranieri, nicknamed The Tinkerman for his constant shuffling of players and tactics during his career, failed to tinker enough when it didn’t matter.
Throughout history, all leaders have problems with growing complacent. The great Agamemnon in Greek myth was killed in a bath after ten years of war, because he finally let his guard down. Henry VIII grew old, fat, and disease-riddled but had his reputation saved by his stronger daughter. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was brilliant but by the time they filmed Meaning of Life, the shtick was too old. Greatness can lead to complacency and the truly great leaders are those who can motivate the people around them (and themselves) when the stakes aren’t that high.
The Leicester City story was, is, and forever will be the thing of myth. Regardless of your rooting interest, it was hard not to at least cheer a little every time the Foxes got a result. It was the right mix of players, coaches, ownership, and environment. That mix could never replicate itself, and either the assumption or hope that it could finished Ranieri at Leicester.
Going into the season, many pundits will now claim they saw the writing on the wall when Leicester failed to bring in key players to boost their depth and replace Kante when Chelsea swooped in for him. That’s only part of the story however. Ranieri won the league with many of the same players this year as last, and the Premier League was not exactly devoid of talent last year. Instead, Leicester began their title defence with the same structure as they won it. Except for Kante, the Foxes lined up in the same formations (4-4-2, 4-5-1) as last season and tried to play the same sharp passing game they succeeded with last year. Except this year, it wasn’t working. The league is changing and part of that was because of Leicester. Another part of that was the import of managerial talent; not just the big names like Conte and Guardiola but managers from the continent at mid-table and lower table sides. Even the grind-it-out Championship has begun to see ::gasp:: stylistic play from some teams.
Ranieri failed to adjust. Leicester continued to line-up the same players in the same formation, but the results were not coming. As the January transfer window approached, The Tinkerman didn’t tinker. He talked of heart, of battling, of his team’s strength but everyone only saw the same thing we’ve always seen. In a season where Antonio Conte rejiggered his side after an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Arsenal and now will win the title, standing pat on your laurels is not sufficient.
What makes this all so baffling is that throughout his career the Italian has been known as a meddler. Things are never just right, formations need to be tweaked and players shifted because – the perception was- staying steady was not the way to win. Adapt and adjust, and you can get the most of a team. You can also burn them and you out, which is why his resume has so many stops, but at least he continued to change. With Leicester’s sudden success, change seemingly wasn’t needed when in fact it was.
There are a range of opinions on what should have been done by the Foxes after May 2016, but the fact remains this team could have done exactly what it did this off-season and still seen some success. The problem was the man known for trying something new didn’t do exactly that until it was too late.