Nine months ago, Claudio Ranieri was being hailed as a miracle worker and serenaded by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli after guiding Leicester to the English Premier League title at preseason odds of 5,000-1.
Now, the charming Italian is out of a job after the Leicester fairytale turned sour quicker than anyone could have expected.
A look at where it has gone wrong for Ranieri and Leicester:
Understandably, given the achievement, Leicester’s players were rewarded handsomely for winning the Premier League. New, bumper contracts were handed out and the club’s Thai owner bought each player a BMW i8 worth around $135,000.
Did success get to the players’ heads? It certainly seemed so on the field.
The work rate appears to have dipped this season. The determination to bounce back from going a goal down just hasn’t been there. The main focus appeared to be the Champions League, not the Premier League, and it showed in the results: Leicester qualified for the knockout stage in Europe with a game to spare and slipped closer to the relegation zone in the league each passing week.
Ranieri even accused his team of lacking “heart and desire” at the weekend after losing at third-tier Millwall 1-0 in the FA Cup.
Rarely can the departure of one player have had such a profound effect on a team.
N’Golo Kante – a dynamic, diminutive central midfielder – was one of the driving forces behind Leicester’s title success. His teammates and Ranieri said he did the work of two players with his energy and reading of the game.
Kante left Leicester for Chelsea in July and has proved irreplaceable. Ranieri signed Nampalys Mendy and Daniel Amartey in the offseason and Wilfred Ndidi in January, but none of the holding midfielders come close to matching Kante.
Leicester’s defense lost its screener and its aging center backs, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, have been exposed. The team has been unable to switch defense into attack as quick without Kante.
Meanwhile, Chelsea – with Kante running its midfield – has an eight-point lead and is a big favorite to win the league.
Ranieri tried to build on an unlikely position of strength by twice breaking Leicester’s record for a transfer fee in the offseason, signing forward Ahmed Musa and then Islam Slimani for a combined 46 million pounds ($58 million).
Like Mendy and Amartey, they have struggled to make any impression and Ranieri has often simply returned to his title-winners of last season to get the team firing again.
It hasn’t happened.
Along with Kante, striker Jamie Vardy and winger Riyad Mahrez were Leicester’s star players last season, scoring crucial goals and bringing an element of surprise to opponents who knew little about them at the start of the campaign.
Vardy scored 24 goals, the second-highest in the league, and netted in a Premier League-record 11 straight games. This season, he has five goals, three of which came in one game against Manchester City in December.
Mahrez scored 16 last season, many of them match-winning strikes, and was voted English soccer’s player of the year. This season, he has three goals and has appeared disinterested in some games.
By the start of February, reports of growing unrest in the Leicester squad started to emerge in the British media. Unhappiness with Ranieri’s tactics, team selections, and managerial style was apparently behind it, although the players showed a united front in public and backed their coach whenever they fronted up after each bad result.
Ranieri – nicknamed “The Tinkerman” at former club Chelsea for his penchant for making regular changes to his team – searched around for the right formula, changing players and formations in almost every game. But nothing worked.
The board gave Ranieri a vote of confidence in a statement this month. Those public shows of faith invariably mean nothing. So it proved.
Ranieri was fired barely two weeks later.