“Millwall have beaten two Premier League teams. We know this and we are underdogs. If they have beaten Bournemouth and Watford then they are above us.”
Those were the words of Claudio Ranieri, manager of current Premier League champions Leicester City, spoken in the lead up to the Foxes’ fifth round FA Cup tie with League One side Millwall. Some wrote the statement off as a tentative foray into managerial mind games by the Italian, others as simply an accurate representation of the current fortunes of both teams. The fact that the sentiment was even vocalised, however, shows the sheer scale of Leicester’s comedown following their heroics last season. If they were riding a euphoric wave in 2015/16, then it appears that wave has crashed brutally into the rocks in 2017. Ranieri, the once-proud captain of the great ship Leicester, appears to be floundering amongst the wreckage. Like Kate Winslet in Titanic, he’s clinging tightly to the big floating door, waiting for rescue.
Ranieri and Leicester are struggling, only months after the greatest achievement in the Foxes’ history
As it turned out, Leicester lived down to their manager’s billing. Despite Millwall going down to ten men after 52 minutes, Ranieri’s men conspired to lose the tie to a 90th minute goal. The defeat adds greater weight to the possibility Leicester will end the season trophy-less, having lost out in the third round of the League Cup to a dominant Chelsea side and looking unlikely to overcome a strong Sevilla side in the last 16 of the Champions League.
It’s in the league, however, where their form has been most alarming. Despite finishing last season 10 points ahead of second-placed Arsenal, they now find themselves with only 21 points from 25 games, one point above the relegation places and with only 5 victories all season. At the time of writing, they are also, incredibly, the only Premier League side not to have scored in the league in 2017.
Vardy and co look set to end the season trophy-less, in stark contrast to last season
Many have begun to start calling for the manager’s head. Ranieri retains a reputation as one of football’s nice guys – all well and good when things are going positively. Stories like the offer of pizza in return for clean sheets were all part of the charm of Leicester’s rise to the top but, when the chips are down, such quirks in managerial style are the perfect stick to beat a man with. How could someone so gentle and amiable be able to turn around the fortunes of a team who find themselves in such a quagmire? Does he have the ability to give the players ‘the necessary bollocking’ that such a situation merits in the eyes of English football fans? It seems not, they say, and so it’s time for him to go.
I find this attitude, quite frankly, absurd. Even the casual viewer of any of Leicester’s most recent games can see where the problem lies. On the pitch. Players such as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who set English football alight last year, have shown nothing of the form that saw them linked with moves to the likes of Arsenal and Barcelona. The reliable back pairing of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, who proved so impassable last season, have shipped 43 goals in the current league campaign, an average of 1.72 goals per game. Hardly the form of defending champions.
Leicester’s stars of last season are failing to live up to former glories
The most-often found excuse, whether in print press or online, for the Foxes’ current form is that they are simply ‘reverting to the mean’. This is, after all, a team who were facing a similar battle only 18 months ago and who appeared bound for the Championship under the leadership of Nigel Pearson (he of ostrich rant infamy). There may be some grain of truth in that theory. It’s entirely plausible that, for one glorious season, the stars aligned. That Ranieri’s unorthodox approach married perfectly with a group of average players playing above themselves in a way they hadn’t before, or will again. And that, as a result, we’re simply seeing the aftermath of a single great season in which both team and manager pushed themselves beyond modest limits.
I’m afraid I don’t buy it. I refuse to believe that players, who so recently showed their outstanding ability, can lose that same ability in a matter of months. Players like Danny Drinkwater, who controlled games from his midfield anchor position so often last season, or Christian Fuchs, whose dynamic athleticism had him considered as one of the best fullbacks in Europe in 2016. There can only be one explanation for such a stark and drastic drop in form. Player choice.
Reports of unrest in the Leicester dressing room could be leading to a breakdown in communication between Ranieri and his players
As unpalatable as it may be, I’m convinced the only explanation for the sudden change in fortunes for Leicester lies with the players and their choice not to play for the manager. There are, of course, numerous reports of player unrest, to which Ranieri has responded by saying that any unhappy players are free to leave should they so wisg.
To be honest, though, I think the unhappiness of the players is an irrelevance. So often, players’ unwillingness to play for a manager is cited as a valid reason for poor performances. For me, there is no validity in it. Any of us, in our day to day jobs, would rightly be reprimanded or indeed fired if we simply refused to do our jobs because we were unhappy with the methods of our seniors. In this age of player power, however, players seem able to be able to make clubs bend to their will. Be it through the demand for larger wages, a move to another club or deliberately downing tools to discredit a manager who is doing his best to do his job, they often get what they want.
Quite honestly, to behave in such a manner should be an embarrassment to any self-respecting footballer. Not only is it incredibly unfair and disrespectful to the manager for whom they are playing, but the lack of professionalism and sporting pride exhibited by players who behave in such a way is undeniable.
It, of course, needs to be stated that there is no proof the Leicester City players are behaving in this manner. But I’m afraid the evidence is very hard to refute. It remains to be seen what will be of Leicester or their manager in the months to come. Regardless of whether they are relegated, or whether Ranieri remains in charge, I hope the lacklustre displays of those in blue this season doesn’t dampen the memory of what was an unforgettable season in 2015/16. More so, however, I hope said displays don’t do damage to Foxes fans’ impression of Claudio Ranieri. He should be remembered as the man responsible for guiding the Midlands club to their greatest ever achievement. Regardless of what came before or what will come after, the league title he brought the club should be enough to ensure his reputation remains intact long after he leaves British shores.