Lest we forget, football is a brutal game

ranieri

Claudio Ranieri mural. Photo by Phil McIver, http://www.flickr.com

Football tends towards the sentimental and the nostalgic; but memories are short and loyalties are increasingly thin. Ranieri achieved something incredible, beyond the wildest of dreams. Relegation from the Premier League is the nightmare that haunts the restless nights of owners however.

There was little chance that Leicester could maintain the altitude of last season, but even so the descent has been painfully abrupt and turbulent. The Foxes have been anything but cunning of late and the Italian seemed to have exhausted his supply of cunning plans.

Leicester legend Lineker said the decision to sack Ranieri showed a gobsmacking lack of gratitude and he suggested that a statue should have been erected in the former manager’s honour rather than the delivery of his P45.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a statue of Ranieri were to appear at the King Power Stadium. His legendary status is guaranteed but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his job should be. How much time, how much leeway should be accorded to a legend? It’s a reasonable question to ask, isn’t it Arsenal fans?

I think Leicester were unduly and unseemly hasty in pulling the trigger this week but I’m not going to add my voice to the chorus of condemnation that has greeted the decision. In the understandable outpouring of support that there’s been for Ranieri, there’s been admirable romanticism but all too little realism.

Managers know that results are all at the top of the game (and that includes you Jose) and that former glories – however utterly stupendous they may be – are a currency that depreciates rapidly.

Did Ranieri not deserve more though? Yes he did and from his players in particular. They have underperformed badly this season and the most troubling part of the whole saga is the suggestion that the players turned against their boss and played a role in his downfall. The debt of gratitude they owe him is probably as great as any in football.

Leicester’s extraordinary triumph in winning the league was built on a collective effort and ethic but the biggest contribution made by any one individual was that of the manager. He maintained a remarkable composure amidst the hysteria; truly a man who kept his head when it would have been far easier to lose it.

Ranieri may have walked in the King’s palace in Thailand, but he never lost the common touch. His decency, humility and sense of humour helped endear his club (and the silverware didn’t hurt in that regard either) to millions around the world.

If many of them lose interest now though, it is not because Ranieri is gone but because the glory is gone. It will be hunted elsewhere. Leicester have had a trip to the moon, but now find themselves back down to earth and are once again experiencing gravity’s pull.

Ranieri can fully and deservedly enjoy retirement if he so wishes. If he wants to manage again, he’s unlikely to be short of offers for long. Most football clubs are in search of a miracle and he’s a man that has an authenticated one on his CV.

Life after Ranieri began last night with a comfortable win over Liverpool. A few more of those and relegation fears will cease and the Italian will be both revered and yet almost forgotten. The next game is never too far away in football and this creates an immediacy and urgency that means the past isn’t usually dwelt upon for too long. Today’s focus is more likely to be on tomorrow than yesterday.

Leicester were lucky that Liverpool were the visitors for the occasion. After the game, Klopp said: “we should get criticised. This inconsistency makes absolutely no sense.” You will get criticised Jurgen and deservedly. You’re also paid quite a lot of money to try and figure out things such as your team’s truly incredible lack of consistency.

Actually I don’t think it’s all that difficult; you don’t have enough quality players and the one consistent thing at Anfield this season has been your baffling decision to play many of them out of position.

The Liverpool boss went on to say: “we are all playing for our future here.” The German has already become something of a legend at the club but he’s smart enough to know that such status doesn’t provide immunity from criticism or scrutiny.

The future horizons that managers contemplate these days have been reduced to a matter of months. They may occasionally talk of Soviet-style, long-term five year plans but they know that the next five games are the more important priority. That’s not particularly fair (or indeed healthy) but it’s the reality and we fans can hardly claim to be much more patient than those who own our clubs.

Leicester fans will never forget the Shakespearian drama that was last season. But for now the talk of the town is more likely regarding whether his namesake is up to the job and if the revival can continue against Hull on Saturday.

Ranieri was greeted as somewhat of a jester when he arrived in the East Midlands, but he departs a heroic king. He’s been around the game for long enough to appreciate that in football as in life: ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.’

But what a part, what an unforgettable part.

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Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

Title winning tinkering

Claudio Ranieri

Claudio Ranieri. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald http://www.flickr.com

I’m watching Manchester United v Leicester. It’s currently 1-1. A win for the Foxes and they are Premier League champions. Take a moment to let that sink in. It will take more than a moment for it to sink in for the Leicester players, supporters, and manager Claudio Ranieri.

5000/1 at the start of the season. Well done to anyone who took that bet. Tom Hanks claims that he did. Leicester were almost cast away from the Premier League last season, but now, catch me if you can, is the statement they are making. I don’t think Spurs can.

Ranieri’s men are no imposters either. They sit atop the league in May on merit: an effort made of discipline, determination, and daring. They will be worthy champions even if it cannot be denied that others have utterly and mystifyingly underperformed. Arsenal fans in particular must be shaking their heads in wonder.

When Arsenal beat Leicester 2-1 back in February I thought a genuine title challenge was emergent from Arsenal and that Leicester were set to falter. But the Foxes have proved to be wily and Arsenal are no blood thirsty hounds; they soon lost the title scent.

Wiliest of all has been Ranieri. Composed when he would have been forgiven getting carried away, he has somehow kept his players focused amid a global frenzy at one of the most incredible stories in the history of football.

It’s been a year of unlikely occurrences. Leicester’s fall has been predicted more often than that of Trump’s presidential bid but neither has stumbled more than briefly. In both cases the chasing pack have mostly been comically inept and succeeded only in wounding each other. Leicester’s defensive wall has proved more secure than anything Trump might hope to erect.

Trump has dismissed suggestions that he’s something of a tiny man, while Ranieri has been jettisoning his reputation as the tinkerman.

The Italian’s back to basics approach has been inspired in its simplicity. He kept faith with the side that performed heroically to stave off relegation at the end of last season while introducing a bit more tactical discipline and defensive solidity. His players have looked as confident this season as Manchester United’s have looked confused by Van Gaal’s enigmatic experimentation.

It was only very recently that Ranieri indulged the talk of Leicester being title contenders, and even then Clive Woodward claimed it was a ‘big error’ and suggested that a coach should never speak about anything but the next game. But you were wrong on this one Clive, Ranieri timed it absolutely perfectly.

He held off long enough (far longer than most would have managed) to keep everyone’s feet on the ground but not so long to have his players doubt him. Just as they were reckoning with the question of can we really do this? The boss said yes. He did it calmly. Yes, keep going, playing just as you’ve been doing, we can achieve something special here. Now they’re about to.

A win today and Ranieri will be given the freedom of the city; he’ll certainly never have to buy a drink in town again. The affable, amiable, and let us not forget ambitious and meticulous manager, deserves all the credit currently being bestowed upon him.

Leicester winning the league should embarrass the old order and it may also embarrass Gary Lineker who appears set to present an edition of Match of the Day in his underwear. The prospect is almost enough to make we neutrals hope for a spectacular late Leicester collapse but instead we should continue enjoying and celebrating this story of the century.

Because next season, who knows? Leicester are probably more likely to return to battling relegation to the Championship than winning the Champions League, especially if (as seems inevitable) their best players are attracted elsewhere. In that case, Ranieri may find himself having to tinker again.

Today’s game just finished: 1-1. Leicester’s title celebrations are still on hold. But not for much longer.