Monday 22 January 2018

Miguel Delaney: Claudio Ranieri needs to react fast or his greatest win will be overshadowed by sad sacking

Claudio Ranieri issues instructions to Leicester striker Jamie Vardy during the defeat to Manchester United. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Claudio Ranieri issues instructions to Leicester striker Jamie Vardy during the defeat to Manchester United. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

At the height of last season's run-in, one prominent manager who knows Claudio Ranieri well was willing Leicester City to win the league, but couldn't get away from one lingering doubt about it all. He privately feared the Italian is just too emotional a man, and that could have led to problems for their title charge when pressure decisions needed to be made.

That never happened. Leicester were on too much of a wave, and everything had been so well set up, that Ranieri only had to guide them along by that crucial stage of the season.

That is not the case now, and it is possible that the manager's prediction may be proven true a few months later. In stark contrast to last season, Leicester are now in a situation where nothing is going their way, and nothing Ranieri is trying is working.

Almost everything he's doing, in fact, seems to just make things worse. He has occasionally tried to change the formation, for example, only for that to lead to obvious confusion on the pitch and a gradual erosion of confidence in his decisions.

Ranieri's reaction and temperament are very far from the champions' only problems right now, but they do raise a very difficult question.

Just a few months after somehow doing the impossible, is it now likely - maybe even necessarily inevitable - that Leicester will do the unthinkable? Could they actually sack a manager that no one wants to be sacked?

Those close to the club say there is no immediate threat of that, but that is the kind of stance that results can drastically change with dramatic speed. How will those in the hierarchy feel, after all, if they lose to direct survival rivals Swansea City this Sunday to finally drop into the relegation zone?

Contemplating

Before even contemplating that, it should be acknowledged that there is a real sadness to the fact this is all already being discussed.

A thoroughly decent man who finally saw a career of apparently eternal second places vindicated thanks to the greatest possible victory, Ranieri is now facing the prospect of that grand delivery being tarnished.

And that would be the deeper significance and danger of any relegation battle, too, only heightening the pressure. It would not just be about saving Leicester's Premier League status; it would be about saving some of the legacy of last season, of keeping it as special as it should always be.

As any Leicester fan would justifiably say, no one can ever take any of 2015-16 away, from the emotion to the glory. However, it would spoil some of its historic status were it to be immediately followed by one of the worst failures of any title winner ever; if they were to become the first defending champions since Manchester City in 1958 to immediately get relegated.

As Jamie Carragher argued, the two would always inevitably go together, rather than 2015-16 remaining as a genuinely unique feat in its own right.

It's difficult not to think that kind of emotional and psychological weight will only add to the challenge if Leicester really do fall into a fight, with that made all the more pronounced by what is happening around them.

While Ranieri's side seem to remain stuck in last season, the relegation battle has been made so engaging by the decisive action taken by their rivals. Hull City and Swansea are the best examples of this, since new managers in Marco Silva and Paul Clement have completely changed their competitiveness, and the complexion of their campaigns.

If Leicester were to lose at Clement's newly focused Swansea, it would only sharpen the questions about whether Leicester need a similar move themselves.

They do need something to jolt them, although the stakes of the fixture now may help focus minds.

"It's massive," winger Demarai Gray said after the 3-0 defeat to Manchester United. "The lads have already said we understand how big that game is. We know we're a good team and it just hasn't worked for us yet. We haven't got going."

What is going around now, at great speed, is the story of dressing-room unrest and doubt over whether all of the squad are still fully behind Ranieri.

"We're all together, all behind each other," Gray said in response to questions about that.

"We have to back each other in the changing room. We'll stay together, get back on the training ground, work on what we need to and keep doing our best on the weekends."

Leicester's worst problems right now, though, are manifold and interconnected.

Hangover

There is obviously an inevitable hangover from last season, and that is probably the explanation for the natural drop-off in individual performances, even if the players are consciously looking to rectify that.

Some individual drop-offs - especially in central defence - have only been accelerated by the loss of N'Golo Kante, and that is something Ranieri really hasn't adapted to yet, either in terms of replacements or tactics.

United's first goal on Sunday summed up a lot of this, given that it emphasised how exposed Robert Huth and Wes Morgan now are, and also showed how fragile Leicester's confidence is now. They just collapsed after what had been a good start.

These issues have added up to ensure that, when there is a setback, they no longer have the 2015-16 assurance to react.

That has, in turn, fed more worrying stories about unrest, and fed an increasingly tense atmosphere.

Ranieri will have to react with a positive change, or it could lead to a managerial change that no-one wants.

The Italian last season pulled off one of the greatest wins in sport. It is a shame it has already led to what may be the greatest challenge of his career. He just needs to rise to it again, to banish doubts one more time. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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