The Ranieri theory: liberation from discipline leads to success – and decay | Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson
The ferocious Nigel Pearson created a basic structure and discipline, but it was under the avuncular Claudio Ranieri, above, that Leicester were liberated enough to blossom and win the league. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images

“However much you liked it,” a former Manchester City director once said, “you wouldn’t put the man who runs your corner shop in charge of a multinational.” He was explaining his belief that City should have replaced Joe Royle as soon as he had led City to promotion, but his argument has more general application.

It is an awkward truth because it does not fit with the comfortably meritocratic notion that you can work your way up from the bottom. Nor does it fit with the manager-as-messiah image that still dominates the English conception of the role. There is a sense we are still looking for the next Herbert Chapman, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie or Brian Clough who can pick up a struggling club and almost by force of personality transform them into champions.

But football has moved on. The gulf between rich and poor is greater than it has ever been. As Arsène Wenger acknowledged last week when he said he would not be able to cope in non-league football, the challenges at a small club operating on a shoestring are very different from those among the Champions League elite, in terms of tactics, fitness, finance and psychology. Football is more impatient now than at any point in its past. With a modern mentality, it is entirely possible that none of Chapman, Busby, Shankly, Revie or Clough (at either Derby County or Nottingham Forest) would have remained in the job long enough to win his first title.

The idea that there is not a one-size-fits-all-manager applies to clubs at different stages of the cycle of development as well as to different sizes of club.

What happened to Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City last week followed a pattern that, if not common, can at least be seen recurring at various times across a range of sports.

The best example, perhaps, is the great Ajax team of the early 1970s. They were created by Rinus Michels, an authoritarian nicknamed the General. His players may have been infused with the spirit of liberation of Amsterdam of the late 60s but he was not. After Ajax lost against Sparta Prague in the European Cup quarter‑finals in 1966-67 he brought in the combative libero Velibor Vasovic from Partizan Belgrade. By his own account Vasovic added “toughness and discipline and a winning mentality” and captained the side to the European Cup. Only 31 but struggling with asthma, he retired that summer at the same time as Michels left Amsterdam for Barcelona.

Vasovic was replaced as libero by the more attack-minded Horst Blankenburg while Michels was succeeded by the genial Romanian Stefan Kovacs. He gave the players more freedom and they responded by winning two more European Cups, producing football of greater style and technical accomplishment than they had under Michels.

“Kovacs was a good coach,” the midfielder Gerrie Mühren said, “but he was too nice. Michels was more professional. He was very strict, with everyone on the same level. In the first year with Kovacs we played even better because we were good players who had been given freedom. But after that the discipline went and it was all over. We didn’t have the same spirit. We could have been champions of Europe for ever if we’d stayed together.”

Of course the dynamics are different and the time frame shorter (that is the nature of modern football), but it is the same underlying paradigm as has played out at Leicester. The ferocious Nigel Pearson laid the foundations and created a basic structure and discipline but it was under the avuncular Ranieri that they were liberated enough to blossom and win the league. And in that moment of their fullest flowering began the process of decay.

Obviously there were other factors but from a football point of view have Liverpool ever been quite the same since Kenny Dalglish shifted away from the controlling game they had practised under Shankly, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan to the glorious expansiveness of 1987-88? England’s cricketers needed the rigour of Nasser Hussain’s captaincy to rebuild after the shambolic 90s but reached their peak after the reins had been loosened by Michael Vaughan. Then, having won the Ashes in 2005, they collapsed into the indiscipline of a 5-0 series defeat in Australia in 2006‑07 and the subsequent pedalo farce in the Caribbean. It is as though the fruit cannot be allowed fully to ripen for, as soon as it does, it begins to rot.

It is not a situation that occurs often because, of course, if things are going well under the disciplinarian coach, it requires an external event – age, a falling-out, a better offer from elsewhere, whatever – for him to leave the club in a healthy position with the structures in place for his more carefree successor to take the handbrake off and let his players roar to glory – and then decay.

It is not a formula anybody can realistically follow – it would be an extremely courageous board who sacked a manager producing restrained efficiency for a reckless dream of self-destructive greatness – but it is a story that keeps repeating. And it is a reminder there are few absolutes in football, that a managerial approach that works with one group of players in one set of circumstances may not be so effective when the environment changes.

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