In 2016, one of the greatest miracles in sports was achieved. And no, it wasn’t the Chicago Cubs winning the world series, the Cavaliers coming back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, or even the Patriots comeback in the Super Bowl. It was the Tigers of Leicester City, who won the British Premier League, overcoming odds of 5,000-to-1.
Their rise can be attributed to a number of individuals. Jamie Vardy captured the most headlines, but so did Riyad Mahrez, Wes Morgan and N’golo Kante. The man who guided each of these stars to success, however, deserves most of the praise. That man is Claudio Ranieri.
In one of my first columns last spring, I unapologetically predicted that Leicester would fail to win the Premier League. I believed that Ranieri would not be able to push his team to continue their success until the end of the season. I am happy to now admit that I was wrong. Despite his previous rates of success at other clubs, Ranieri pulled off an almost impossible achievement.
Leicester City is stuck in an uncontrollable downward spin toward the bottom of the Premier League table, and they are only one point clear of the relegation zone, which means if they finish the season at that level, they will be relegated to the second tier of British soccer, called “The Championship.” Despite winning their group in the group stage of the Champions League, the most elite tournament in Europe, and suffering a respectable 2-1 loss to Spanish side Sevilla in the first leg of the elimination round, Ranieri has been given the axe.
Outrage does not fully capture the common sentiments in the global soccer community upon hearing this news. Some of this is absolutely justified. Several players on the Leicester squad had become completely disillusioned with Ranieri. The phrase to best describe the situation is that Ranieri “lost the locker room.” He no longer had the trust or the confidence of his players. He could no longer motivate them to go out and play the way that had made them champions.
What factors could have led to this situation? Ranieri has certainly taken some of the blame, admitting that his coaching decisions have been poor this season in regards to tactical approaches to games, as well as player rotation. But what many believe to be the real root of Leicester’s performance this season are the inflated expectations set by the players and executive board of the club.
Before 2016, Leicester was a completely mediocre club. They had just achieved promotion from the Championship at the end of the 2013-2014 season, and had finished No. 14 in the Premier League in 2014-2015. There were never any expectations of finishing in the top four, let alone winning. And then it happened. While the achievement is incredible, it is important to remember that Leicester’s success in 2016 was a fluke. Leicester could not hope to regularly compete at the top level.
Perhaps the Executive Board thought otherwise. They could have expected Ranieri to be fighting for a top 10 finish, rather than fighting to escape relegation. And the players probably let their expectations grow beyond reality, in terms of success, or even financial gains in the form of contracts or sponsorships. At its best, this situation can be described as the players, and Ranieri, resting on their laurels.
At this rate it may actually be more fitting for Ranieri’s legacy that his time at Leicester has ended in this manner. He will not be remembered as the man who failed so miserably to keep Leicester in the Premier League.
Ranieri will be remembered as the manager who was cut off too soon, and that forces beyond his reach were the source of his demise. There is hope, though, that Ranieri will soon be able to repeat his successes. As he enters the market as a manager, it is likely that he will be picked up by another team, and given another chance at a miracle.