Though the Real Madrid boss has enjoyed a dream first year in management, the achievements of the Italian far outweigh those of the Blancos boss in 2016
For all their poor performances in the Premier League this season, the story of 2016 in the footballing world remains the amazing achievements of Leicester City. Portugal’s victory at Euro 2016 and Real Madrid’s almost untouchable 12 months certainly deserve their places among some of the great achievements of the 21st century, but neither come close to matching what the Foxes were able to achieve.
It is for that reason that Claudio Ranieri – rather than Zinedine Zidane – should be the man named as FIFA’s Coach of the Year at Monday’s award ceremony. Madrid boss Zidane seems to be the favourite having guided the Blancos to Champions League success as well suffering just two defeats during his first year in charge.
That is a remarkable achievement for someone who, despite all his playing experience, is a rookie manager. But he has the fortune of having adopted the best squad in world football is not something many other coaches have the luxury of. Barcelona supporters may argue that their own roster of players outstrips their Clasico rivals, but there are few, if any, other sides around the globe who would be able to justify keeping James Rodriguez, Isco and Raphael Varane on the bench with such regularity.
Ranieri, on the other hand, was given a squad of players who narrowly avoided relegation and handed the task of securing their Premier League status once again as chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha worked towards his dream of establishing the King Power Stadium outfit as a side who could consistently challenge at the top of the table.
Instead, the charismatic Italian stumbled upon a system that saw them inexplicably second in the table heading into 2016. Jamie Vardy had already broken Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record for scoring in consecutive matches while Riyad Mahrez was being compared with the likes of Lionel Messi.
Even more remarkably they were able to maintain that form into the new year, eventually winning the club’s first title in their 132-year history. But it was not Ranieri’s tactics and in-game management that were most impressive as Leicester marched towards history.
For much of their title run-in, Ranieri was able to pick the same XI in the same 4-4-2 system. But it was away from the pitch that he did his best work. His ability to keep fringe players motivated when there was an acceptance that they would not be starting was outstanding, and could not have been illustrated better than by Leonardo Ulloa’s impact as he scored three crucial goals – including two in stoppage time – during the final weeks of the campaign.
Ranieri was also able to manipulate the media in such a way that he was able to maintain his own agenda rather than having the press dictate it. Though many laughed at his constant assertion that he was just looking to get to 40 points as his side swept all comers aside, his ability to switch focus from certain players towards himself and ensure he remained the story throughout.
No more could this be seen than during his pre-match press conference for April’s clash with Swansea City. He had seen his side’s lead at the top of the table over Tottenham cut to five points while Vardy’s red card and subsequent reaction against West Ham had seen him slapped with a two-match suspension just as his manager needed him most.
But instead of dwelling that disappointment, Ranieri instead ensured that everyone knew that his side had secured their involvement in this season’s Champions League, coining the now iconic: “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong, we are in Champions League man!” Any negativity over Vardy or their dropped points was forgotten, and it was no coincidence they went onto beat Francesco Guidolin’s side 4-0 in front of a buoyant home crowd.
And it is for these reasons that Ranieri deserves all the admiration when it comes to the best managers of 2016. Not only was he able to bring together a team of previously mediocre Premier League and Championship players and turn them into title winners, but his man-management and handling of media was second-to-none. One only needs to look at events at Stamford Bridge during the second-half of 2015 to see how failing to master those attributes can lead to failure.
This season’s events – outside of the continuation of the fairytale in the Champions League – may have soured things slightly, but there is no doubt Leicester City are the story of 2016. None of that would have been possible without Claudio Ranieri.