Leicester right to sack Claudio Ranieri
There was an ominous change of mood at Leicester City before a ball had even been kicked this season, after their remarkable Premier League triumph during the 2015-16 campaign.
Two days before the champions faced FA Cup winners Manchester United in the Community Shield at Wembley, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri held a press conference at the club's Belvoir Drive training ground. At it, he complained about the attitude of his players during the preseason and the delivery of 19 Azure Blue sports cars, given as presents by club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha to the squad for winning the title three months earlier.
"There are some gifts, only for them?" Ranieri said. "Let me think about the match, not the cars. It's not important to me to think about cars."
The Italian was irritated by the gesture, believing that his attempts to focus his players on the challenge ahead, rather than backward toward the prolonged celebrations of the summer, had been compromised by his employers.
Last summer, at Leicester's Los Angeles training base, Ranieri first noted the altered mindset of his players. They had been happy to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of Santa Monica and photo shoots with actor Will Ferrell, but on the pitch, they were hammered 4-0 by Paris Saint-Germain, and Ranieri was alarmed.
"I want more than the maximum; that's why I was not happy in Los Angeles," he said. "I did not see the same mentality together. Everybody worked hard, but not as a team, and that is the difference."
Unfortunately for Ranieri, though he saw the danger signs, he was unable to prevent the team's fall from grace and his fears of complacency back in August went unheeded. The players took their eye off the ball, wallowed in their achievement, and could not rediscover the magic.
As a result, after being told on Feb. 7 that he had the "unwavering support" of the ownership, Ranieri was sacked Thursday, less than 24 hours after Jamie Vardy's first goal of 2017 in a 2-1 first-leg away defeat against Sevilla gave Leicester genuine hope of progression to the Champions League quarterfinals.
They may still get there, but they will have to do so without Ranieri.
But while the European dream remains, Leicester hover just one point above the Premier League relegation zone, and survival is the priority. The club's owners believe the team has a better chance of achieving that with somebody else in charge of the team.
That could be Roberto Mancini, Alan Pardew or even Nigel Pearson, the architect of Leicester's "great escape" two years ago and the man who made way for Ranieri in the summer of 2015.
If no appointment has been made by Monday, assistant manager Craig Shakespeare and first-team coach Mike Stowell will be in charge when Leicester host Liverpool at the King Power Stadium, by which time they could find themselves in the bottom three.
Hull and Swansea have dragged themselves from seemingly doomed positions after changing managers since the turn of the year, and now Leicester must hope for a similar change of fortune. If they are to do that, they will need more from the men on the pitch as well as a new manager.
Of Ranieri's title winners, perhaps only goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel could claim to have performed anywhere close to his best this season.
Losing N'Golo Kante to Chelsea before this season was a hammer blow, but were Leicester really about just one man last season?
Vardy has scored just seven goals this season, and none in the league since early December, while Riyad Mahrez has gone from the heights of being crowned PFA Player of the Year to performing like the misfit who once struggled during a trial with Scottish outfit St Mirren.
Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have seen their rock-solid central defensive partnership crumble on a weekly basis, and Danny Drinkwater has reverted to being the journeyman he had become before last season's heroics alongside Kante.
Ranieri was let down by the players he guided to the title; he attempted to fire them up again after last season, but nobody was listening. But that is also a failing of the manager: If his message is not getting through, he needs to be smart enough to change it, and Ranieri was unable to do so.
And although sacking him appears brutal and lacking in any kind of recognition of what he achieved last season, this is the right decision. Ranieri had time and public backing to turn it around, but with relegation beginning to loom large, Leicester could not gamble any longer on loyalty.
Not all fairy tales can have happy endings, and Ranieri has discovered that the hard way. But the time in Los Angeles suggested he knew what was coming anyway.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_