For many, Claudio Ranieri deserved a job for life at Leicester. What he did last season, turning a bunch of mostly journeymen and cast-offs into Premier League champions, was the stuff of dreams and comic books. Ranieri had made the impossible possible, bringing a touch of romanticism back to a sport that has become a cold, hard, money-driven industry in so many ways.
It meant that there was an outpouring of dismay and incredulity when Ranieri’s firing was announced on Thursday evening. He reportedly was informed of his departure by Leicester’s board immediately after his return to England after the Champions League match at Sevilla, where Leicester lost 2-1 in the first leg of the last 16 on Wednesday.
The general opinion was that he deserved so much better.
“Unforgivable,” tweeted Gary Lineker, the former Leicester and England striker.
“Ungrateful English,” read the headline on the front page of Friday’s edition of Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, Ranieri’s native country.
Look deeper, though, and there was a sense of inevitability about the ruthless decision made by Leicester’s Thai owners. Ranieri is simply the latest manager to be toppled by player power.
In short, his players had stopped playing for him. Only last weekend, Ranieri accused his team of lacking “heart and desire” in a 1-0 loss to third-tier club Millwall in the FA Cup. The virtues that carried them to the most unlikely title triumph in the history of English football – notably team spirit, organization and hard work – had vanished.
On Friday, Sky Sports was reporting that senior players had told Leicester’s owners that they were unhappy with Ranieri in a meeting after the Sevilla game.
Ranieri was a hostage to his apathetic players and the team was heading, embarrassingly, to relegation.
This isn’t a new phenomenon in the Premier League.
In December 2015, Jose Mourinho was fired by Chelsea seven months after guiding the London team to the Premier League title. Like Leicester now, Chelsea was one point above the relegation zone at the time. Days before he was fired, Mourinho said after a 2-1 loss at Leicester that he felt his work was “betrayed” by his players. The conflict between manager and team was obvious – only a handful of players played to their potential that season – and Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo spoke of a “palpable discord” in the camp.
In May 2013, Roberto Mancini was fired by Manchester City, less than a year after winning the Premier League. Three days earlier, City’s players had performed way below their usual level in losing the FA Cup final 1-0 to relegation-threatened Wigan and there were reports of dressing-room discord throughout that season, in which City finished second in the league.
If change is necessary amid friction at a club, there is only one route the board will take. In this era of player power, the manager will always take the hit rather than a group of players – in this case, players who seemingly have allowed their new-found status to get to their heads.
“CHAMPION OF ENGLAND and FIFA MANAGER of THE YEAR. Sacked,” read a post on Mourinho’s Instagram account late Thursday. “That’s the new football Claudio. Keep smiling.”
Ranieri’s departure leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, though. Many argue that despite Leicester being in freefall – the team has lost its last five Premier League games without scoring and could be in the relegation zone by the time it plays its next game Monday – he deserved a chance to get the champions out of danger in the final 13 games. And then, if Leicester did end up getting relegated, the chance to bring the team back up.
“It’s a disappointing day for managers all around the world,” Sunderland manager David Moyes said Friday.
After all, Leicester has simply regressed to its normal level this season: Battling relegation. This is a team that was in the third tier of English football as recently as 2009 and only got promoted to the Premier League in 2014.
Leicester’s owners thought otherwise, and took any feelings of sentiment out of the equation. The financial implications of dropping out of the Premier League are so huge that they believed they needed to act immediately. Hull and Swansea have changed managers since the turn of the year and have had an upturn in results.
Leicester’s players apparently turning against Ranieri may just have been the tipping point.
Years from now, people will remember the fact that Leicester won the Premier League at odds of 5,000-1 in the most outlandish underdog story possibly ever seen in sports. The fact that the manager who masterminded the feat was fired the following season will be a footnote.