Connect in the back of the net

Sunday evening marked the end of Greece’s woeful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign which saw them win just one of their ten games to leave them rock bottom of a group that contained the Faroe Islands.

Now onto their third manager in just under a year, Greece’s qualifying run was started by Claudio Ranieri and it was a home defeat to the Faroes, ranked 85th in the world, last November that saw the Italian lose his job. He had lasted just four months of a two-year €1.6 million contract.

Ranieri then spent the following seven months out of work before Leicester City came calling in their search for a successor to Nigel Pearson. Pearson had masterminded a late scramble to safety with a superb run of seven wins from their last nine games in a sequence that started in April and, on the face of it, his dismissal was surprising.

His track-record of acerbic behaviour would count against him however and, with the club’s Thai owners desperate to clean up the club’s image after the scandal involving a few of their players, one of them Pearson’s son, when on tour of the country, the decision to part ways was ultimately justifiable.

 

Eyebrow-raising appointment

Safe to say the appointment of Ranieri, fresh from his Greek catastrophe and possessing a string of failures on his C.V since he enjoyed moderate success with Chelsea between 2000 and 2004, managed to raise eyebrows.

The 63 year old was perceived as the anathema to Pearson, a nice guy who would be friendly with the press and certainly wouldn’t throttle a player on the side of the pitch.

The departure of Esteban Cambiasso, so influential in last season’s miraculous survival, a week after Ranieri took charge intensified doubts over Leicester’s decision to go with an underwhelming choice who had not managed in the Premier League for eleven years.

The Argentine’s exit, on the evidence of last season, could have been a fatal blow but Ranieri chose not to panic and a detailed scouting process led him to N’Golo Kante who was signed from Caen for £5.6 million. So far the 24 year old has been outstanding in the middle of the field and Ranieri likens him to Claude Makelele, whom he coached at Chelsea.

It is questions like those that Ranieri has answered flawlessly so far. Eight games into the new season and Leicester are fourth having suffered just one defeat, a rip-roaring 2-5 loss to Arsenal, so far.

“I would like to be nominated every month — without winning” said Ranieri after he had been shortlisted for August’s manager of the month award. “Sometimes the winner in the next match, he loses.”

 

The influential Mahrez

As he was nominated for the manager’s award Riyad Mahrez, who had scored four goals in his opening four games, was nominated for the player’s version only to lose out to Swansea’s Andre Ayew.

The Algerian picked up another nomination for September’s PFA Fan’s Player of the Month which was won by Anthony Martial of Manchester United. With three assists and averaging 2.6 chances per game he is Leicester’s most productive player and recognition has been forthcoming.

Now on five goals Mahrez already has one more than he managed in the whole of last season and, after initially being surprised by the winger’s lightning pace upon taking over, has emerged as an important factor to Ranieri’s high-speed counter-attacking.

Mahrez is the right-sided player in Ranieri’s 4-4-2 that has Marc Albrighton on the opposite flank with Jeffrey Schlupp supporting him at left-back.

With the relentless pressing and boundless endeavour of Jamie Vardy up front, Leicester house three of the Premier League’s quickest players and it allows for the type of football that has seen the Foxes average 43.2% possession and a pass success rate of 70.6%, placing them bottom of the division for both statistics.

“I would like to keep possession of the ball but we don’t have these characteristics in the team so I prefer to go straight away” Ranieri said.

 

Entertaining in attack, porous in defence

Shinji Okazaki may have struggled for goals since his £7 million switch from Mainz in the summer but his energy has provided the perfect support to Vardy in attack.

The 1-2 win at West Ham on the second weekend of the season, in which Okazaki got his only goal to date, was the perfect illustration of how Ranieri wants his Leicester side to play, working hard to reclaim the ball in midfield, firing a ball into the channels for attackers swarming forward at breakneck speed.

It has made for some entertaining football with 17 goals scored, only league leaders Manchester City have more, but it has come with the expense of a porous defence that has shipped 15 goals, with Sunderland and Newcastle, the bottom two, the only clubs who have conceded more.

They have not yet managed to keep a clean sheet and Ranieri, ever the affable chap when presented in front of a microphone, promised to buy his players pizza if they achieved a shut-out.

He hasn’t yet had to reach for his wallet and the nature of games like the Arsenal defeat or the 2-2 draw to Stoke and the 3-2 win over Aston Villa when they had to battle back from two goals down on both occasions will worry Ranieri as their games have abandoned control.

But Ranieri has certainly brought the excitement many didn’t think was possible when the Srivaddhanaprabhas took the gamble on him in the summer.

 

Proving the critics wrong

“Uninspiring” was the reaction of Gary Lineker to the news Ranieri was the man to succeed Pearson but how spectacularly wrong that forecast is proving to be. One senses, after the nightmare in Greece and the disappointing way he was dumped by Chelsea in 2004, the 63 year old is enjoying his role of proving people wrong.

But for a manager who has failed to stay more than two seasons at any club since leaving Stamford Bridge 11 years ago he will be aware just how easily the wheels can come off.

For now though Leicester are playing football that everybody can enjoy, made sweeter by the man at the helm being Ranieri, the humble and universally likeable guy who deserves his shot at restoring pride more than most.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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