A year ago, Leicester City were in first place in the Premier League, five points clear of second-place Tottenham. Today, they’re one point clear of the relegation zone. And somewhere in there, you’ll find the reason manager Claudio Ranieri was just fired.
A day after a not-disastrous 2–1 away loss to Sevilla in the first leg of their round of 16 Champions League matchup, and less than two months after FIFA told us he was the best manager in the world, Ranieri is out of a job. The Leicester fairy tale is officially over.
So, what the hell happened?
Take a look at their numbers from this season and last:
The biggest discrepancy is in the lack of tackles and interceptions. The possession numbers are the same, so Leicester are defending just as much as they were last season, but they’re not doing so as aggressively or as effectively. Departed midfielder N’Golo Kanté’s tackle and interception numbers for Chelsea this season almost fill that hole exactly. With Leicester 32 points behind their 2015–16 pace and Chelsea 31 points ahead, it looks like it all went to shit for Leicester after losing Kanté. (It also looks like Kanté is the most important player in the world.)
But there’s more. Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy were the most potent attacking pair in the Premier League last season, and now they have eight goals between them. Last season, they scored on 38 percent of their shots, and now they’re converting just 32 percent of the time. Last season, Kasper Schmeichel was saving everything, and now the club has a sub-65 save percentage. Last season, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth were the Midlands version of the Cowboys offensive line, and this time around they’re England’s most popular red carpet:
In short: Last season, everything went right, and this season, almost everything has gone wrong. Leicester were way better than their underlying numbers last time, and this time, they’re much worse.
Soccer is frustratingly random, and it’s not all Ranieri’s fault that this season’s results haven’t been as good as the quality of the team’s performances. Barring any behind-the-scenes high jinks, Leicester should’ve fired Ranieri only if they expected to be as good as they were last year — and it’s hard to imagine, without Kanté, that the club’s brain trust believed they’d make history two years in a row. The top six reloaded this summer, and Leicester’s numbers suggested they were in for a drop anyway. Sure, they weren’t supposed to drop this far — but they weren’t supposed to win the title last season, either. If Ranieri could win it all, couldn’t he also win a relegation battle?
As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight gives Leicester a 61 percent chance of staying up. They beat exponentially higher odds last season. The problem? They just got rid of the guy who helped them do it.