If Claudio Ranieri’s dream died when he was sacked before the end of the season, it has taken less than a week for a nightmare to move into its place. Somewhere in Rome the former Leicester manager has probably been waking up screaming at the indignities he has suffered over the past few days.
Based on results, the boot ought to have been expected, for dreams of longevity are not permissible for teams near the bottom of the Premier League who are scoring no goals and picking up no points. Leicester’s recovery once he had left was not entirely unforeseen either, though from Ranieri’s point of view his former players could have gone about securing their first league win of the year with a little more subtlety.
Flattening Liverpool all over again, as if nothing had changed since the steamroller process capped by Jamie Vardy’s spectacular goal just over a year ago, just made it obvious that regime change was all that had been required. Yet worst of all must have been when Ranieri picked up his morning paper to discover Leicester have been talking to Roy Hodgson. Iceland 2 England 1 Roy Hodgson – the 69-year-old Roy Hodgson, one of the few managers old enough to make the 65-year-old Ranieri look quite sprightly.
Is it possible Leicester’s owners have not noticed how frazzled England managers generally become once they have completed their time in charge of the national team? One can understand the logic that says a chap who has been promoted that far must know something about running a football operation, though such simplistic reasoning ignores a few modern realities.
One, the days are long gone when the top managers seek jobs with national sides. The money and the kudos is all with leading clubs now. Two, England were not good under Hodgson. In tournaments at least, which is surely what counts, they were arguably even more terrible than ever before. Three, the post-England careers of Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren in the Premier League do not offer any indication that the theory works.
It appears Leicester are learning on the job, though, and prepared to act on the evidence of their own eyes, which suggests Craig Shakespeare knows the players well enough to steer the side to safety so that a decision on a long-term manager can be made at the end of the season. Ranieri can rest a little easier in that knowledge, though the spectre of Hodgson left dangling before Leicester’s allegedly restless players is a reminder to all concerned to be careful what you wish for.
That expression is frequently used in connection with Arsenal’s ongoing managerial ennui, though in advance of the Gunners’ visit to Anfield on Saturday the first real criticisms of Jürgen Klopp’s handling of Liverpool have been getting an airing.
Liverpool supporters were fairly clear about what they wished for, as they are about most things. They wanted a top-drawer manager with a record of success and a definable style. Not overly impressed by the contributions of Hodgson and then Brendan Rodgers, and quite possibly spooked by how close they came to appointing Roberto Martínez, they felt a club of such stature should go for one of the big names if it wanted to restore former glories.
Klopp definitely counted as one of those and early results were encouraging, yet after a dismal January was followed by such a limp performance against Leicester some fairly basic questions are being asked, such as why Klopp could not see that Mamadou Sakho would be a better fit at centre-half than Lucas Leiva. That boat has sailed now, of course; Sakho is playing for Crystal Palace, though only because Klopp set his face against a defender who had become popular at Anfield and happens to possess the traditional physical qualities of a centre-half.
Lucas manifestly does not – he is a midfielder not especially blessed with pace – and it was odd, to say the least, to see Klopp keep him in central defence on Monday when he had Ragnar Klavan on the bench. Then again it was odd to see Liverpool attempt to defend such a high line when it has become clear to all that Leicester thrive with space to run into. Manchester City tried the same thing and gave the Foxes their only other resounding win of the last few months, so Liverpool had been warned. Klopp knows all about Leicester from last season in any case.
As a result Liverpool are down in the unwanted fifth spot in the musical chairs game that Champions League qualification has become this season and, as Manchester United are only a point behind in sixth with a game in hand, the result on Saturday carries some significance.
It will be interesting to see how Arsenal approach it, because Liverpool’s record against top-six teams is good and one of the reasons Klopp’s side have dropped so many points against teams lower down the table is because they are the ones prepared to sit back and let Liverpool have the ball. The theory being that if you have the ball all the time your pressing game becomes redundant. Simple as that sounds, stats suggest that the more possession Liverpool have and the more passes they make, the fewer games they win.
Will Arsène Wenger pack his defence? Would a draw be an acceptable result? Arsenal themselves are not guaranteed a top-four finish and the only certainty at the moment is that, if Bayern Munich confirm another European exit next week, life will become uncomfortable all over again for their manager.
For the first time in 20 years Wenger is beginning to look short of answers and, though he was the one who drew the comparison to Sir Alex Ferguson a month ago, the situations are not as similar as all that. Yes, two managers staying in charge for over two decades is a rarity and replacing such an institution when the time comes is never going to be straightforward. Yet, though many are pointing to the succession problems United had and saying be careful what you wish for, there is no reason why Arsenal must suffer a similar fate.
United were trying to preserve the status quo, after all. Arsenal want change or at least at terrace level they do. United thought continuity might be best achieved by appointing the manager who most resembled Ferguson on his arrival from Scotland in 1986. The mistake they made there, easy to spot with hindsight, was in failing to recognise the massive growth of the club through the Ferguson years.
United were in every way bigger than David Moyes and it is clear now that what they should have done was hire José Mourinho, or someone of similar experience, straight away after Ferguson.
There are no grounds for supposing that, when the time comes to replace Wenger, the Arsenal board will make the same costly errors – indeed they ought to be able to learn from what United learned. Which was, in essence, to be careful what the outgoing manager wishes for. Do not attempt to replace like with like and do not assume one 20-year reign will be followed by another. Do what other big clubs do in these situations, go out and get the obvious candidate.
The Guardian Sport