by Edikan Umana
When Football Twitter found out Claudio Ranieri had been sacked from Leicester City FC, the uproar and frenzy was instantaneous. From hot-takes to think pieces, a lot has been said about the game losing its soul and whether or not Leicester’s owners made the right decision. On one side, some couldn’t believe Leicester parted ways with a man who despite experiencing previous failures in reaching the Promised Land, led one of the most unlikely clubs to win the English Premier League. On the other side, others claimed “this is just the way it is” and how football is a business and we should be used to such managerial treatment.
Of course, on any topic, you tend to have your extreme sides, those in the middle and others who fall somewhere in between. To say the least, for those who say “this is just the way it is”, the data would suggest they have a point. Pellegrini’s been let go. Mourinho was sacked last season and now Ranieri. Assuming Chelsea win this season under Conte, we’ll see how he fares the following season.
What’s fundamental to understand is Leicester City’s owners have a bottomline, otherwise Ranieri probably wouldn’t have been sacked. A bottomline that drove them to schedule meetings to gauge player morale and eventually relieve Ranieri of his duties. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Cut-throat, swift and a bit of two-faced backstabbing. According to Daniel Taylor, “barely a fortnight earlier, before deciding they had to cut him free, the people in charge at Leicester promised Ranieri their ‘unwavering support’“ (click here to read more).
Something which Taylor noted even happened with the late Sir Bobby Robson when he was at Newcastle in 2004. You know one of the cited reasons for his dismissal? That’s right, “alleged discontent in the dressing room”.
That was in 2004. Fast forward to 2017 and similar has transpired in Ranieri’s case. Numerous rumours circulated about the atmosphere at Leicester throughout the season and it certainly didn’t come across as rosy. Something broke for Leicester this season and there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut reason or chain of reasoning capturing what that was.
On the surface, the unity once enjoyed within the club last season, didn’t seem to have translated to the current season.
Simon Gleave, head of analysis at @GracenoteSports, tweeted about how from an analytical point of view, Leicester’s performance scores were fairly normal until end of October 2016.
In the graph above, the Euro Club Index (ECI) calculates results in all competitions and factors in the strength of the opponent. For example, an away win at Manchester City is weighted more than an expected home win to Sunderland (courtesy of Simon Gleave)
Leicester’s results form in the league leading up to October 2016, 2W 1D 3L (7 points, 6 matches), not horrible but not great either. For comparison sake, Swansea City’s results form over same time period was 1W 1D 4L, who now sit in 15th.
In October, Leicester had 1W 2D 1L (5 points, 4 matches) which again isn’t great but not horrible either. Following October and up til the end of December, Leicester had 2 wins, 2 draw, and 5 losses (8 points, 9 matches). Now we can see a slide appearing.
As Simon Gleave wondered, what happened towards the end of October and afterwards to influence such a drop off in results form? Did their focus on doing well in the Champions League hinder how they handled the subsequent league matches?
Leicester became the first team in UEFA Champions League history to keep a clean sheet in their first four group games and finished top of the group. While the biggest team in the group was FC Porto, Porto have much more experience navigating the Champions League group stage, thus for Leicester to perform as they did and finish top of the group in their first time being in the Champions League, is quite impressive.
Unfortunately such form didn’t transpire to the Premier League and by the end of November, Ranieri admitted “we are in the battle of relegation”.
For players, fans and a club which just recently won the Premier League title, let alone made history, it’s not something which would reach your ears with delight. Perhaps this was one of many moments where some of the players and Ranieri didn’t see eye to eye. After reaching the promised land, it’s easy to let it go to your head and to think you are more than what you are.
However, one of the more difficult questions for Leicester is what are they? Was their title win last season just a fluke? Are they just underperforming? Is it a case of post-title win hangover? What’s going on here? Other clubs you can look at and easily bracket them at nominally finishing at the top, middle or bottom of the table.
With Leicester, it has not been so clear cut because even though they lost N’golo Kante, they still made signings and kept Mahrez and Vardy. Given the circumstances coming into this season, one would think even if they weren’t top 6, they wouldn’t be in or near the relegation zone yet now they are in the relegation zone.
From Rob Harris’ point of view, Leicester didn’t prepare well for this season after the title win, which set the course for where they are now. Harris also remarked on how players who regularly tweet about sponsors and promotional activities, didn’t have anything to say after Ranieri’s dismissal.
The first player to say something was Kasper Schmeichel, more than 24 hours after Ranieri was let go. Mahrez and Vardy followed suit but instead of seeming genuine, it came off as a response to protect their reputations from being seeing as pivotal characters in Claudio’s demise.
Numerous details, leaks and narratives followed suit after it was announced Ranieri and Leicester parted ways. If anything, it further drives home the point how the media is used as a tool for various parties to attempt to control the narrative and protect themselves from scrutiny. As Mark (@ETNAR_uk) eloquently wrote here, the narratives which have come out conflict more than they align.
Despite the competing narratives, one thing is for sure, players had some influence in Ranieri’s sacking. In this video, https://twitter.com/moradfutbol/status/835510808167731200 Kasper Schmeichel would have you believe otherwise. However, at the end, Geoff Shreeves asks Kasper if those meetings did not happen and Kasper didn’t answer directly but instead repeated the line players had no say in Ranieri’s sacking.
It’s quite clear what’s happening here. Kasper is covering for himself and the other players. To admit the meetings did take place is admitting culpability in the overall decision making process for the owners. To tow the line and say players had no say or influence in Ranieri getting sacked is a reflection of the supposed selfishness Jose Mourinho referred to in his comments on Ranieri’s dismissal.
The Manchester United manager commented, “The season started with selfishness, people wanting new contracts or to leave. But this is our world now.”
In Schmeichel’s case, it makes sense he has something to protect in not admitting responsibility seeing as he signed a new contract last summer.
It highlights what Daniel Taylor referred to as a “culture of fear and impatience” due to amount of money in the game where no one wants to be left behind. Potentially, not wanting to be left behind was weighing heavily on Leicester’s owners and getting wind of discontent from players was enough to change their tune on a manager they seemed so eager to back. Thus, it implies the owners’ bottomline, not being left behind. Even though it’s not even March yet, fear and impatience can throw any additional call for perspective or patience out the window.
Arguably, the owners gave Ranieri a decent amount of time to turn it around, but how his sacking was handled, came across as if what he did for the club prior didn’t mean much of anything. Ranieri himself knew the odds were stacked him. He knew who betrayed him and that some players were led by staff who were still more loyal to Pearson than him. That is ultimately a toxic situation and one which indicates the only inevitable outcome for Ranieri was being dismissed by the club.
In business, it’s common to look out for one’s self interest, make sure you don’t fall behind and do your best to stay afloat given the circumstances. From a business standpoint, the owners saw a need for the ship to be steadied and no longer felt Ranieri was the man for the job. Scheduling a meeting with players without the manager present already signals something is amiss. The manager and players are meant to work together and in a typical organizational structure, players tend to be a level below the manager. Along with the fact they made their decision days ago to let Ranieri go, scheduling a meeting with the players seemed to be an opportunity for the owners to cash in on whatever discontent was there, whether Ranieri really had “lost the dressing room” or not.
The precedence set here gives more preferential treatment to players’ discontent than actually backing the manager beyond a PR statement. Since no one wants to be the bad guy, once news leaked of players’ voicing their displeasure to the owners about Ranieri, players began to distance themselves from having any part in his sacking.
It breeds a culture not based on unity, but a lack of harmony and every man out for himself. It’s what makes a manager’s job, especially at clubs with no sound support structure for the manager, a difficult task to bring everyone together and achieve a common goal or objective. With this added difficulty, is there any surprise across football there’s high manager turnover?
It’s become a cycle which seems like there’s no end in sight and it won’t end until each vested party (manager, owners, staff, players etc.) takes more ownership in what they’re responsible for and make working together the primary goal and mindset. Until then, we will continue to see players respond as Leicester players have and a denial of rifts when in a highly competitive environment, it makes sense for the occasional rift to occur.
Managers are left hung out to dry, the best they can hope for is a nice compensation package and history remembers them fondly. While they are responsible for leading the team, they can’t make the players follow their lead. That comes down to each player’s individual choice along with how each choice manifests collectively. Something players have decided to distances themselves from rather than remaining committed until the end.
A house built on a fragile foundation will not stand in troubled times. Too often at football clubs, it doesn’t take much for whatever display of unity to collapse, derail progress and look like a house built on quicksand.
Thanks for reading and major thanks to Simon Gleave’s statistical insight on Leicester’s slide down the table.