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Commentary

Gunners' surrender echoes tactics that axed Ranieri

The phenomenon of player power is not new, but it has been taken to new heights in an astonishing season that has redefined the distribution of power between bosses and their star performers.

If the two most invulnerable managers can be brought down by a critical mass of the dressing room, who now is safe from mutiny?

The context is worth spelling out. At the end of the last season, Claudio Ranieri was pretty much unsackable. He had just masterminded the most beautiful and improbable triumph in the history of sport.

The owners described him as a genius, the city serenaded him and Hollywood came knocking. Nobody has started a new season on the back of such universal eulogy. Today, Ranieri is unemployed. The players saw an opportunity to wield the knife and took it with savage gusto. Leicester City fans who pretend that the players gave undiluted commitment to Ranieri but were held back by poor tactics and selection are demonstrating cognitive dissonance on a quite breathtaking scale. They don't like to think of their players as treacherous, so clutch at any straw.

The less blinkered among us recognise, however, that this was calculated regicide. A group of players made representations to the owners to complain about the manager, and then expressed this message with brutal eloquence by underperforming on the pitch. A team once unified by commitment and resolve looked, at times, like leaves in a gale.

Only when the leader had been dispatched, informed that the services that had led to a historic feat were no longer needed, did they regroup.

Leicester City fans who pretend that the players gave undiluted commitment to Ranieri but were held back by poor tactics and selection are demonstrating cognitive dissonance on a quite breathtaking scale.

Whether it was right for Ranieri to be sacked is, in this context, a moot point. The issue, here, is that a group of players effectively upended a manager who was, only a few months ago, impregnable.

And this brings us to Arsene Wenger, the only other manager who might, at the start of the season, have been described as unsackable, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

The board at Arsenal have long taken the view that Wenger is secure, provided he continues to keep the club in the Champions League.

Fourth place is enough, given the risks of trying someone new. Today, however, with Arsenal sixth - though still in the running for another top-four spot - Wenger is on the brink not least because he has himself realised that it cannot go on like this.

The reason is simple - most of the players have stopped giving it their all. Have they drawn lessons from Leicester? It is striking that since the sacking of Ranieri, Arsenal have been beaten 3-1 by Liverpool, 10-2 on aggregate by Bayern Munich and 3-1 by West Bromwich Albion, a defeat on Saturday that can only be described as abject.

On those occasions when players deliberately go missing, the consequences are stark: the loss of one-on-one battles, a lack of running off the ball and a blunting of competitive edge.

And because players know that even the most revered managers can be sacked for two or three conspicuously poor performances.

But what is fascinating about the Ranieri sacking, and the possible departure of Wenger, is that players have taken their collective power to new heights. Is any manager safe today?

I happen to believe in the concept of player empowerment. Mutiny, however, is different.

This is not players using their initiative within the context of a meaningful hierarchy; it is players attempting to subvert the hierarchy.

Occasionally, this may be justified. If a manager is underperforming, and the owners will not act, fans might applaud players taking matters into their own hands.

But the dangers are manifest, for when players believe they have not merely the power but the right to ditch the manager, anarchy is never far away.

And so the mutating power dynamic within football will be worth watching in the coming months.

Players across Europe will have noted how subtle withdrawal of labour places owners, even those with rock-solid relationships with their managers, in an invidious position.

Whatever happens, gaffers, good and bad, will be feeling more vulnerable than ever.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline 'Gunners' surrender echoes tactics that axed Ranieri'. Print Edition | Subscribe