Leicester City’s Intractable Position
Seldom these days does the FA Cup actually feel like it is offering something of critical importance, but on Tuesday night it certainly felt as though Claudio Ranieri needed Leicester City’s three-one win against Derby County in their FA Cup Fourth Round replay more than most managers need a win in this particular competition at this particular time of year. Make no mistake about it, May 2016 feels like a long time ago. The ribbons on Leicester’s extraordinary Premier League title win are looking tatty to the point of dilapidation already, and off the back of four successive defeats and with a critical trip to play a Swansea City side that has been starting to show signs of life itself of late to come this weekend, vultures are starting to circle over The King Power Stadium.
As unusual as the story of this club’s last couple of seasons has been, football always returns to one of its two or three standard possible resolutions to a situation such as this, and it has been inevitable that the cold, hard stare of media attention should have fallen so squarely upon Claudio Ranieri. Perhaps this leaves certain sections of the fourth estate in an uncomfortable position. After all, last summer it was the manager who was praised up beyond any other individual as being the orchestrator of their success last season. But this, of course, also means that he will be considered responsible for the rapid decline of the team this season, and criticism of supporters who were expressing disquiet over the way that the team has been playing over the last few months has started to become more muted over the last couple of weeks or so.
This is, of course, the junction at which professional football’s realpolitik and its unabashed romanticism collide. In the trigger happy world of the modern football club owner, Ranieri’s position should really be just about untenable. His team is in a nosedive from which there have been few signs – that FA Cup win against Derby County notwithstanding – of a recovery being imminent, and whilst it should be obvious that all connected with the club owe him a huge debt of gratitude, relegation from the Premier League is, regardless of the prize money and commercial revenues won as a result of last year’s exertions and the benefits of having been involved in the Champions League, not something that any football club can afford.
Of course, we all already know that there is an element of pantomime to all of this. It is broadly acknowledged – albeit largely only with the benefit of hindsight – that the club had a bad time of things last summer. The departure of scout Steve Walsh, who had been widely praised for bringing together so many of the band of brothers that raced to the Premier League title last season, to Everton in July may have been reflected in the club’s failure to adequately fill the hole left in its midfield by the departure of N’golo Kante to Stamford Bridge.
With the benefit of hindsight, it may be considered that the decision to resist the sale of Jamie Vardy to Arsenal might have been a misjudgement, considering the extent to which their former top scorer has misfired this time around. The Champions League has been a distraction – how could it not be? – and there are plenty of Leicester players who might benefit from a little more introspection when considering how things have gone so badly wrong this time around.
Pantomime, however, doesn’t really do nuance and it is now broadly considered that a part of the manager’s job these days is to act as a human shield for the shortcomings of others, even if to pin what feels like something that falls between being a reversion to type and a structural failure on one person is palpably absurd upon any degree of scrutiny. But there also sound, logical reasons for not sacking Ranieri now, the most obvious of which is the question of who the club could possibly get in to replace him who would be scramble the team to safety. There are no obvious names that spring to mind at present.
Over the course of the last few days, the club itself threw its support behind its beleagured manager with a lavish statement noting their “unwavering support” for the manager. It is, however, something of a sign of the extent to which we expect some form of forked-tonguedness on the part of clubs that any statement from a football club that is interpreted as a (“dreaded”) “vote of confidence” that such statements are ordinarily treated with disdain by many, and more often than not as a precursor to the sack itself. This feels so often like an elaborate pas de deux that we all play, to some extent or other, that it should hardly feel surprising that we find ourselves in this position yet again.
Are there any reasons for Leicester City supporters to be optimistic at the moment? Well, they do remain in two cup competitions. Their round of sixteen match against Sevilla is obviously an extremely tall order to navigate, but it’s not the least winnable tie that they could have pulled from the hat, whilst the draw Fifth Round of the FA Cup sees them make a trip to play a Millwall team that has already beaten two Premier League teams in this year’s competition, but with two divisions between the two clubs a win for Leicester, which would put the club ninety minutes from a trip to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final.
The cups, however, are mere garnishments. The bread and butter of the existence of Leicester City is the club’s place in the Premier League, and for all that we talk of fantasy scenarios in which the club wins the Champions League and get relegated at the same time, the harsh reality is that the club’s future wellbeing will be best safeguarded by remaining members of that top twenty. There’s still time for Leicester City to save their season, and the whirling dervish of CRISIS that has descended over The King Power Stadium of late may well turn out to be a media creation, in its own respect. But the worry in the back of so many minds around the club will be that most familiar one that face at this point of the season: is the risk of changing the manager after the closure of the January transfer window too much of a gamble for the club to take, or can Claudio Ranieri pull the champions to safety? This position may or may not be clearer after this weekend’s trip to South Wales.
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