December 3, 2015

LINSEY | Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City’s Incredible Rise

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“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” This classic Beatles song asks whether people remain relevant when they reach a certain age. In the Beatles’ home, the United Kingdom, a 64-year-old is at the forefront of one of the most stunning sports turnarounds in some time.

Claudio Ranieri has a storied career at the top level of soccer management. The Italian has managed first division clubs in England, Italy, France and Spain, including such legendary clubs as Inter Milan and Chelsea. Having managed for over 30 years, the 64-year-old should logically be entering a decline. In his last job, he managed the Greece national team. He was in charge of the team for four matches, losing three of them, two to the lowly Faroe Islands. As a result, he was fired and seemed likely to retire.

Over in the English Midlands, Leicester City was a club with mid-table stability in the English Championship (the league directly below the Premier League.) However, they had an amazing season in 2013-14, when manager Nigel Pearson led them to first place out of the Championship’s 24 teams and earned an automatic promotion to the Premier League. Predictably, they struggled in 2014-15 against the higher quality teams in the Premiership, sitting in last place halfway through the season. But a flurry of wins late in the season led to Leicester miraculously surviving, avoiding relegation back to the Championship.

Expectations were low for Leicester’s second straight Premier League season in 2015-16. During the summer, Pearson was fired; he had been suspended several times for his bizarre conduct and club management finally lost their patience. The club called Ranieri, who accepted the job offer. Ranieri had not managed in England since the end of his spell at Chelsea in 2004 and still struggled with English. He was known as the “Tinkerman” from his time at Chelsea because he often tinkered with his lineups week-to-week, which some believed hurt his team. Thus, Ranieri and Leicester were an odd pairing; many thought Leicester would finish in the bottom-three this year and be relegated. However, Leicester has had the season of a lifetime. A third of the way through the campaign, Leicester is in first place in the Premier League, occupying rarefied air usually reserved for the giants of the league. After all, only Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers have ever won the league title in 22 years of the league; United has won more than half of the championships. This wholeheartedly unremarkable club from the Midlands sits in first place in the league, powered by Jamie Vardy’s fourteen goals. Let’s analyze the reasons for this shocking ascendance.

Soccer is a team game, but goals win games; every successful team needs a skilled goalscorer. Vardy has provided that for Leicester this season. The former factory worker played non-league soccer on the weekends for Stocksbridge Park Steels, which means he was not paid to play. He earned a contract with Fleetwood Town and impressed there, eventually being signed by Leicester when they were in the Championship. The extremely fast and hard-working forward has scored goals in 11 straight games, setting a Premier League record (Ruud van Nistelrooy of Manchester United had the previous record with ten straight games). At Ranieri’s experienced tactical discretion, Shinji Okazaki and Leonardo Ulloa have taken turns forming a formidable striking partnership with Vardy.

All of this begs the question: Is Leicester’s success sustainable and can the Foxes, as they’re known, go on to win the league title this season? Asking these questions is a bit like asking whether Donald Trump can win the GOP nomination for President. They are leading at this moment, but a thorough analysis of relevant factors shows that they are not likely to be there in six months.

Leicester has ascended to the top of the league at a time when many believe the traditional top teams are weaker than ever. In the past, all top talent would exclusively sign for the top four or five clubs; nowadays, more and more teams in the middle or bottom of the league are finding talented players willing to sign for the club. The top clubs do not have exclusive access to the top talent and are struggling to dominate in their usual fashion. Leicester has also played a very weak schedule so far. In their next four matches, they’ll face traditional heavyweights in Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City, which will show the world whether the Foxes are serious title contenders or not.

Something very strange is happening in the rolling hills of the English Midlands. A forgotten coach has led a club that is usually an afterthought to the top of the Premier League. Claudio Ranieri may be 64 and past his managerial prime, yet he is still managing in the Beatles’ home country. Given his success with Leicester City Football Club, Ranieri could still get a free meal in any house in Leicester despite his age. They still need him, and they would still feed him, even at 64.