Claudio Ranieri’s dismissal as Leicester Manager this season has been one of the most controversial decisions in recent sporting history. Assistant Editor Jon Hoggard challenges the current football system and its tendency to place extrinsic motivators at the forefront of both clubs’ and players’ agendas.
Who’d be a manager? The sacking of Claudio Ranieri just nine months after he led Leicester City to the Premier League title is one of the most gut-wrenching stories of the season.
Clubs sacking league-winning managers isn’t that uncommon – in recent years it has happened to Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini, and FA Cup-winning Louis van Gaal was sacked while still damp from the champagne celebrations. So why has Ranieri’s departure caused such outrage?
Firstly it’s because of the scale of his achievement. The managers mentioned above were expected to win – they were top managers at top clubs that had expectations of continued success. Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City wasn’t in that bracket. Everyone’s genial uncle, Ranieri wasn’t brought to Leicester to win anything – but he went on to lead the Midland minnows to Premier League champions.
And it was a deserved win. Leicester played to their strengths, adopting an uncompromising 4-4-2 formation, exploiting their players’ attributes and perhaps embodying the best of British football. They regularly steamrollered more illustrious opponents. They didn’t knick a cup final on penalties; this was a season-long miracle, a once-in-a-lifetime feat.
This result is part of the problem. Much of the outrage directed Leicester’s way is because during those months they became everyone’s ‘second team’. We all got wrapped up in the plucky underdog story; it made all those Roy of the Rovers comic strips seem believable, and we loved being part of nice Uncle Claudio’s miracle.
To get a better understanding of some of the context of how things unravelled for Ranieri, Player Development Project Lead Researcher, James Vaughan discusses the context of the challenge at hand and speculates as to some of the reasons behind it. “It’s worth considering the task at hand for Claudio this season. Few clubs could compete in both the Champions League and the Premier League. When you’re in Europe your time on the training pitch drops dramatically, players are tired, especially with a smaller, inexperienced squad (when it comes to European football) which plays with an energetic style. You need a bigger squad and rotation, which means less cohesion. Did Ranieri change tactics or style because of this? Did he aim to keep more possession to save his players’ legs? Is it any wonder Barçelona have the lowest ‘kilometres run’ statistics in the Champions League this season? Because of Leicester’s success, they faced the football problem this season of teams sitting considerably deeper, leaving little or no space for Vardy to run in-behind.”
Of course, football isn’t just a whimsical escape any more – it’s a business. And with a ruthless business hat on, we can all perhaps understand that the circumstances forced Leicester City’s owners’ hand. Balance sheets must be balanced, investments protected, and targets fulfilled. And, football matches won. But we’ll leave that for now.
Because I want to discuss the second reason Ranieri’s departure has stuck in so many people’s throat: player power.
Immediately after the news broke, rumours circulated of ‘unrest’ within the players. Had they formed a coup? Had the board interviewed senior players for advice? Had the players been giving their all? To be honest, we will probably never know for sure.
And yet. Watching Leicester City on the pitch this season is like watching a different team entirely. The personnel hasn’t overly changed – key midfield man N’Golo Kante of course being a big loss. But where has the intensity been? Where is Mahrez’s dazzling wing play? Vardy’s remarkable goalscoring? The great defensive wall of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan? This season, they just haven’t turned up. Any recreation of last season’s form, and the risk of relegation (and therefore the risks to the owners’ investments) goes away, and Claudio steers the ship to a happy, probably mid-table finish.
Accusing the Leicester squad of purposefully downing tools as a mark of disrespect to Claudio Ranieri, or an out-and-out attempt at removing him entirely, is probably going too far. There are many people pointing that particular finger, but what if there was something deeper at play? What may have gone wrong to create such a marked change in these players?
Consider what happened in the close-season, when the ticker-tape had been swept away and we were all still basking in the afterglow of Leicester’s win. The rumblings started then. Ranieri urging his players to stay “for one more season”, amidst swarms of clubs sniffing at the club’s prize assets. Riyad Mahrez rejecting a new contract while flirting with Barcelona. Agents touting players to secure new contracts for those who always intended to stay.
It boiled down to this: as soon as they achieved success, many players (and their representatives) only saw the potential for cold hard cash. The problem lies in the fact that the current systems within top level football are driven by ego, money and extrinsic reward. Very few teams (if any) prioritise style of play, values or philosophy over results at the highest level because the industry is defined by scores and finances. James Vaughan explains, “The extrinsic rewards are not only pointless and damaging, but they can control motivation while you pursue them (making it less likely you will perform to your potential) and leave you feeling empty or unsatisfied after you’ve achieved them. Intrinsic rewards like mastery of a playing style alongside having a real purpose or meaning are so much more valuable because they continue to evolve.”
And so on to this season. With their intrinsic motivations undermined by society’s desire for material things (a situation football reflects) and their extrinsic desires satisfied, these players look bereft of drive.
The players are therefore lambasted. And they do need to take some responsibility – there are plenty of rich footballers who manage to keep motivated, after all, but this will probably have little to do with their play and more to do with the mastery of their craft. Perhaps Claudio Ranieri should shoulder some of the responsibility here too, for not finding a way to motivate the squad?
This was always likely to happen, though. Look at the systems and environment in which modern elite footballers operate. It’s all driven by money. Personal gain is put above team gain. Loyalty lasts as long as a contract, often less. Fans are a commodity to be taken advantage of, their unwavering support expected in return for being flogged sponsored tat. Players are dipped into this strange environment with its corporate rules and values from a young age, so why are we surprised when they act the way they often do? Why are we surprised when players make decisions based on their pay packet rather than the purity of ‘pulling on the jersey’ – which would be enough for the fan on the sideline for a lifetime.
So that’s why we shouldn’t be surprised at all about Leicester City sacking Claudio Ranieri. In the world of elite football, maybe even just English football, it completely makes sense.
The important thing is to understand that we can change things. Systems and environments evolve, and players can be given the tools to keep the motivations that matter. If you’re reading this article it’s likely you’re in the privileged position of being able to mould young footballers. I bet you’ve never ‘lost the dressing room’. Why? Because ‘player power’ and all that nonsense happens later, under the media glare in the crazy, money-driven world of elite football.
So it’s in your power to change this. As coaches, you are in a position of influence where the opportunity to guide players and facilitate learning environments is something that should never be taken for granted. By removing ego and encouraging players to adopt a growth mindset, where learning is prioritised over outcome, you’re giving your players a head start.
If you were disappointed by the Leicester City debacle – or any of the hundreds of similar debacles – think about how you’d like to change things, because it starts with the players. If we instil the right values at an early age, the nonsense may stop.