Five-a-side TOTW: April 29th 2017

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

We are almost over the line. This weeks five-a-side TOTW includes just the five matches. Chelsea maintained their four point lead over Tottenham with a 4-2 win over Southampton at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal left it late and needed the help of a Robert Huth own goal in order to seal three important points against Leicester City. Christian Eriksen’s ‘golazo’ was the difference in Tottenham’s match against a resurgent Crystal Palace. Middlesbrough won for the first time 2017 to all but condemn Sunderland to Championship football next season. And on Thursday the Manchester derby ended goalless.

Goalkeeper – Brad Guzan

Very much seen as the back up to Victor Valdés, the ex-Aston Villa keeper has had to accept a bit-part role. In fact, Wednesday’s 1-0 win over fellow strugglers Sunderland was only the 10th time that the American had appeared in a Middlesbrough shirt this season. Guzan looked assured between the sticks, and made an impressive four saves. The win was Boro’s first since in 2017. They had not claimed a Premier League win since the 3-0 hammering of Swansea City way back mid-December. That miserable run has all but confirmed that they will be playing their football in the Championship next season.

The Stopper – Eric Bailly

Injuries have not helped the young Ivorian settle. After starting this season as first choice and appearing in 13 of United’s first 15 matches, it seemed as though United manager, José Mourinho, had found his rock at the back. Since injuring his knee in United’s 4-0 defeat against champions elect Chelsea in late October, the ex-Villareal man has only appeared in 19 out of a possible 42 matches. He has started in United’s last nine games, a run that has seen them keep five clean sheets and only concede four goals. In the 0-0 draw over Manchester rivals, City, Bailly was absolutely superb. His speed, strength and reading of the game really shone through. If he can remain fit and injury free, United will have a serious player on their hands.

The Midfielder – Cesc Fàbregas

He’s in, he’s out. Poor old Cesc Fàbregas. He just can’t seem to get a solid run of games together. It is is true that he is competing for places with the PFA Player of the Year, N’Golo Kanté, and the vastly improved Nemanja Matic. Nonetheless, the ex-Arsenal man must be frustrated with his situation. If he was looking to make a point then his display in Chelsea’s entertaining 4-2 win over Southampton would not have done him any harm. Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, cannot have helped but been impressed with the Spaniards intelligent use of the ball. Time and time again he picked out teammates with perfectly threaded passes, even assisting Costa for his first. Rumours continue to circulate regarding AC Milan’s interest in taking the ex-Arsenal and Barcelona man over to Italy in the summer. Fàbregas turns 30 next week, and he will no doubt be keen to ensure that he is part of a team that picks him more regularly than every other game.

The Playmaker – Christian Eriksen

I must confess – I have never really been convinced by this guy. I have always felt that he has flattered to deceive. Yes, his set pieces are nearly always on the money, and yes, he scores the odd spectacular goal; however, I have always felt that there has been something lacking from his game. I was astonished to find out earlier this week that the Dane has covered more ground than anybody else in the Premier League this season. Furthermore, he is second only to Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne for Premier League assists, with an impressive 12 to his name. His brilliant match winning goal against Crystal Palace was his eighth of the season, and it kept Tottenham’s unlikely title charge on track. I am going to have to eat my words over the ex-Ajax man and admit that he has turned into a really fine player.

The Finisher – Diego Costa

His form blows as hot and cold as his temperament. He scored 15 goals in his first 19 Premier League games of the season. In the following 12 he has managed just four. Against Southampton the Brazilian born Spain international was back to his best. An assist and two goals ensured that Chelsea kept their distance over Tottenham. His second goal was absolutely brilliant. Exchanging one-twos with two of his Chelsea teammates; Eden hazard first, then Pedro second, before rifling in a low drive past Fraser Forster in the Southampton goal. A brilliant performance overall.

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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.