Five-a-side TOTW: April 6th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

Arsenal maintained their relatively slim top-four hopes with a comfortable 3-0 victory at home to out of form West Ham. There were also home wins for Leicester and Watford against Sunderland and West Brom respectively. Burnley secured an important win at home to Stoke to allay their relegation fears. Liverpool could only manage a 2-2 draw at home to Bournemouth whilst both Southampton and Chelsea won at home; the Saints defeating a resurgent Crystal Palace 3-1, and Chelsea recovering from their brief blip at the weekend to win 2-1 against Manchester City. A defeat that all but ended their visitors already slim title hopes. Hull recorded an important 4-2 win over Middlesbrough in an entertaining game at the KC. Manchester United left it late but recorded yet another home draw against Everton; Zlatan Ibrahimovic saving their blushes with a last minute spot kick. And finally Spurs scored three goals in the final five minutes to come from behind and defeat Swansea 3-1 at The Liberty Stadium. But who made it into our team of the week?

Goalkeeper – Kasper Schmeichel

Before Craig Shakespeare took the job many were expecting last seasons champions to be plying their trade in English football’s second tier next season. The appointment of Shakespeare has led to a drastic turnaround in the Foxes form. The 2-0 win over Sunderland was Leicester’s fifth Premier League win in a row and sixth in all competitions. It was also a second consecutive Premier League clean sheet for Schmeichel, only the second time he has managed this all season. Schmeichel has indisputably been Leicester’s best player this season. He has galvanised him teammates at times where they looked downtrodden and hopelessly out of form. Leicester will stay up this season, and Schmeichel will have more than played his part.

The Stopper – Phil Jagielka

This guy is an enigma. I sometimes look at him and think “how on earth can he have won 40 England caps?” Well his performance on Tuesday evening against Manchester United justified those 40 caps and probably silenced many of his critics. He was nothing short of outstanding as he captained Everton to a very deserved point at Old Trafford. The ex-Sheffield United man threw himself in front of shots, made perfectly timed tackles, and managed to silence the Stretford End with a really smart finish. Out of favour under Koeman for much of this season, the veteran centre half demonstrated that he is more than able to compete with the biggest names. Ibrahimovic was kept quiet up until his late penalty earned Manchester United a point they hardly merited.

The Enforcer – Idrissa Gueye

I said at the beginning of this season that this man would be Everton’s key summer signing. He really does look to have been a snip at £7 million. Like Jagielka he was brilliant against United; he controlled the game and won the ball back for his team on countless occasions. The Senegal international has made more tackles and interceptions than any other player in the Premier League this season. If Everton are going to make a late charge for the European places then Gueye will have to maintain his impressive form.

The Free Role – Eden Hazard

When he wants to be he is absolutely brilliant and, more often than not, when he is, so are Chelsea. Against Manchester City was one of those nights that the mercurial Belgian decided he was going to turn it on. His two goals maintained Chelsea’s seven point lead over London rivals Tottenham. He has been involved in 18 Premier League goals this season and looks likely to break his previous best Premier League goals tally which stands at 14 (he’s currently on 13). Chelsea will almost certainly go on to claim their second title in three years, and Hazard will have been one of the key players in the success.

The Finisher – Jamie Vardy

He has got six goals in the six games that Craig Shakespeare has been in charge. Prior to that he had only managed the same number in his previous 38 games. The upturn in Vardy’s form has been a key factor in Leicester’s recent run of results. After scoring an absolutely brilliant goal against Stoke in the previous game, Vardy continued his goalscoring run against the leagues basement club, Sunderland. With the Champions League returning this week and City facing a tricky trip to Atletico Madrid, Shakespeare and Leicester fans will be hoping that the Vardy party will keep going on.

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Were Leicester City right to sack Claudio Ranieri?

Agree to Disagree – where the argument you had at the pub last Thursday becomes a well mannered discussion.

Claudio Ranieri’s gone! The man in charge when Leicester City pulled off the biggest shock in the history of English football has been sacked less than ten months after lifting the Premier League trophy. Leicester’s form has been dreadful – but should he have been sacked?


YES

Mike Franchetti argues…

Shock horror! Tactically one-dimensional manager sacked after players and fans rapidly lose faith. Uproar! Departure follows a run of five straight Premier League defeats and six games without SCORING A GOAL. The worst decision ever! Champions of England spend £60,000,000 and plummet to relegation battle winning just five games by the end of February.

Really? Is Ranieri’s sacking the worst decision ever? Worse than Birmingham City turfing out Gary Rowett – when eighth in the table – to bring in Gianfranco Zola? Worse than Swansea City kicking out their obviously talented young manager and former captain Garry Monk? What about when Gianluca Vialli was given his marching orders after winning three cup competitions in two years?

Okay – whisper this – but I actually might not have sacked Ranieri. Why? Because I value loyalty and like to see managers given a chance to turn things round. I don’t think like a businessman and I’m certainly not a multimillionaire chairman. I long for the old days where managers could mould their clubs and create defining eras; Ferguson’s United, Wenger’s Arsenal and, erm, Allardyces’s Bolton? This is probably the first pro-sacking post I’ve written. Over the years I’ve wanted them all to stay; from Andre Villas-Boas and Martin O’Neil, to Tim Sherwood and Steve Clarke.

But Ranieri’s sacking hasn’t left me with the usual sour taste. Outside of sentiment, I don’t see too much wrong with the Italian getting axed.

Let me first find a sentence or two for the miracle of the 2016 season. I still haven’t been able to get my head round what happened. Leicester winning the Premier League was at least ten times more improbable than Liverpool overturning their deficit in Istanbul. It was absolutely bonkers. They sailed to the top of the Premier League, lost to Arsenal, dusted themselves off and then went another 12 games unbeaten. Bizarre. Bonkers. A miracle.

What follows a miracle? Another miracle? Highly unlikely. Ranieri had the near-impossible job of delivering Leicester City to a safe mid-table finish without players and fans suffering from a case of apathy. He was behind the steering wheel of the most feel-good story in recent footballing history but with no idea where to go next. Somebody had to walk into the Leicester City party, turn the music off and say ‘What the f*** do we do now’? Nice-guy Ranieri was never the man for that job.

If I’m honest, I don’t even think he was that instrumental in last year’s success. During Leicester’s string of sensational victories his face often showed the same pleasant surprise as mine. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing and neither could we.

The main argument for keeping Ranieri is that Leicester should not sack the man who has helped deliver the greatest season in their entire history. It’s a fair shout but not one that would play on the mind of the King Power International Group. By all accounts they seem like reasonable owners (at least by current standards) and, even taking into account parachute payments, they can’t afford to let their club drop to the second division.

Perhaps, in an ideal world, the club would sack Wes Morgan – and his spiced rum deal – or the aging Robert Huth. Perhaps they’d sack Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez for losing interest and returning to mediocre levels of form. But players can’t be sacked in such certain terms. The club has been loyal to the spine of their title winning team but unfortunately this loyalty can’t be extended to the man in charge.

Maybe this is the true level of Leicester City; a fair conclusion considering their struggles in the last part of 2014 (no win in thirteen). But sadly there is nothing about Ranieri’s character – or managerial history – which inspires confidence that he is the right man for this situation.

With relegation looming, many thought Leicester fans would smile and say to eachother ‘Ah well, it was all worth it’ but this was never going to be the case. Diehard football fans will never settle for prolonged periods of substandard performances. Ranieri’s sacking – much like last season’s title – was written.

 

NO

Sam Simmons argues…

We all know that football managers are sacked on a regular basis. An isolated glance of the Premier League table would indicate that the sacking of Ranieri was justifiable. There have certainly been harsher cases of managerial sackings in the not so distant past.

Looking exclusively at this season and the results of Ranieri’s Leicester team is choosing to analyse only half the story. This season is only a disaster in the context of what happened last time around.

Let’s say that Leicester had finished 16th last season. Ranieri would have been congratulated for stabilising a team that had experienced a summer of turmoil. Let’s not forget that when Claudio took over he was hardly the first choice among Leicester fans and, of course, the mandatory football ‘experts’. Many had predicted him to be the first manager sacked and the bookies had emphatically decided that the Foxes were destined for the drop. “Well done, Claudio – you did your job!” Those are the words you’d imagine that the Leicester City owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, would have said to his Italian manager had that particular scenario played out. Pleased that his left-field appointment had paid dividends, the Thai businessmen could be satisfied with what his manager had achieved.

Of course we all know what really happened. Ranieri’s side lost only three games, two of which were to Arsenal, and won the title by a staggering 10 points. “Well done, Claudio. That really is incredible!” Again – I am being somewhat facetious, but Mr Srivaddhanaprabha would surely have been able to realise the enormity of what his manager had achieved.

And this is why the sacking of Britain’s favourite foreign manager is so utterly ridiculous, so utterly unnecessary, and so utterly wrong!

When sacked, his side were outside of the bottom three, still in the Champions League, and still, in my opinion at least, likely to stay up. In fact, it is worth reminding those who are less familiar of Leicester’s recent history that they were sitting in a far worse position 24 months ago. The then manager, Nigel Pearson, was given the time to turn things around then.

Would the owners have sacked Ranieri had he finished 16th last season and was sat in, say, 14th place now? Absolutely not. People would still be saying that he was doing a reasonable job with the squad he had available. The owners – likely content with the progress from the previous campaign – could board their private helicopter safe in the knowledge that the team would be enjoying a fourth consecutive Premier League season.

“Well done, Claudio. You’re still doing your job to the level we expected.”

How could Ranieri not be afforded the same courtesy as Pearson was? In many ways this question is largely irrelevant. The decision has been made. But what the decision tells us sets a worrying precedent. Essentially, by making this decision the owners have said that they value Premier League survival over the success of last season. It affirms a nasty reality of the modern game – money really is everything. Clearly Srivaddhanaprabha and his son feel the cost of getting relegated is one that is too financially hard to bear.

There are other alleged reasons for Ranieri’s departure, namely regarding whether the players had lost faith in their manager. I am sorry, but I find that particularly story very hard to believe. You’re telling me that a group of players who achieved the impossible last season have suddenly lost faith in their manager?

I mean, pull the other one! And even if they had, that only reflects badly on them. If they were not professional enough to get on with their jobs even though they had reservations about the manager, then it just goes to prove that modern day footballers are just overpaid, pampered prima donnas.

I happen to disagree with this theory. For me the reality is far more simple – Leicester are where they are meant to be. They were never meant to win the league last season, so why should expectation have been so drastically different?

Naturally anything below first is a failure compared to last season – but what else were people expecting? A Manchester United like period of dominance? What Ranieri achieved last season was absolutely unprecedented. He deserved immunity. Instead of sacking him, the owners should have been building statues.

I can’t help but feel bitterly sad and disappointed about the events of the last week. Last season was so romantic, so wonderful; it really did go a long way to restoring an element of humanity in a game that increasingly seems to lack it.

Ranieri was a key figure in that. His humour, positivity and general behaviour was a stark contrast to the macho and unpleasant bravado we have seen from many of his contemporaries.

In the words of the great man. “Dilly ding. Dilly dong. Wake up!” If only the owners had woken up and realised that they were never, ever going to have it so good.


Five-a-side TOTW: December 13th 2016

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

There were 29 goals in the six Saturday games, but only 7 in the four games played on Sunday. Chelsea returned to the top of the league after briefly vacating their place to London rivals, Arsenal. A Fernando Llorente doubled helped Swansea record back-to-back home wins for the first time this season against fellow strugglers, Sunderland, and Manchester United won at home in the league for the first time since August the 19th. Elsewhere, Manchester City lost 4-2 at reigning champions Leicester, and Burnley beat Bournemouth 3-2 at Turf Moor after suffering three successive defeats.

Goalkeeper – Lukasz Fabianksi

Fabianski makes his first appearance in our 5-a-side team of the week. It is hardly surprising that it has taken this long; the Pole has let in 31 goals in his 15 games this season, the most of any keeper in the league. Saturday’s 3-0 win against Sunderland was only their third clean sheet of the season. Fabianski was in good form and will be happy to have kept out his relegation rivals.

The Stopper – Phil Jones

For an awfully long time now Phil Jones has failed to live up to expectations. When he burst on to the scene at Blackburn Rovers he looked to be one of the finest prospects in the game. He did enough to convince Sir Alex Ferguson to pay almost £17 million for him when he was just 19. Unfortunately, he has never kicked on. Still only 24, this is really his make or break season. Mourinho seems to have given him confidence, and he has enjoyed a decent run in the side in recent weeks. United have a wealth of options at centre back already, and are constantly being linked with new additions to their backline. However, if Jones continues to demonstrate the form he showed against Tottenham this weekend then Mourinho may think twice before dipping into his transfer kitty.

The Enforcer – Ander Herrera

This man has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent months. Signed by Louis Van Gaal two summers ago, the former Bilbao player has often looked to lack the steel required to succeed in the Premier League. However, United’s poor form, and an inability to find a balance in midfield let to Mourinho moving Herrera into more of a sitting role. He has excelled, and has been one of the most consistent midfielders in the league this season. Excellent on Sunday against Tottenham, he kept Mousa Dembélé and Dele Alli relatively quiet. Herrera’s discipline allows Paul Pogba to have that little bit more freedom further up the field, something which United fans have been crying out for ever since he joined for a world record fee in the summer.

The Playmaker – Mesut Özil

The German was in brilliant form at the weekend, and capped his impressive display off with a deft headed lob over Lee Grant in the Stoke City goal. Özil does occasionally look to be uninterested and can sometimes look to be a bit lazy. However, when he wants to turn up he is an absolute joy to watch. Not many players would have made the run he made, let alone had the audacity to lob the keeper in that fashion. It really was an excellent goal, and an important one too, as it gave Arsenal a lead that they were not to relinquish.

The Finisher – Jamie Vardy

It took 12 games, but Vardy finally broke his goal scoring duck for Leicester. His hat trick was his first since scoring one for Fleetwood Town against Ebbsfleet way back in February 2012. All his goals were very much vintage Vardy. He timed his run impeccably for the first goal and finished superbly beyond Claudio Bravo. His second was a wonderful team goal. Christian Fuchs’ searching pass picked out Riyad Mahrez who laid the ball perfectly into the on rushing Vardy’s path. He rounded Bravo before finishing well. The third was just pure opportunism. Manchester City had been aimlessly passing the ball around their defence all match, and Vardy used his intuition to read a predictable back pass from his England colleague, John Stones. Once again, Leicester’s No.9 rounded Bravo before finishing brilliantly from an acute angle. Leicester have been struggling in the league this season, however the performance against City will certainly give them some much needed confidence. Vardy’s hat trick was also a timely reminder to all those who had been saying he was just a one season wonder.