Claudio Ranieri and the sunk cost fallacy

TFN Editor Hugo Greenhalgh on the sad reality of Claudio Ranieri’s sacking…

A few weeks, a group of friends and I were discussing the “sunk cost fallacy”. The theory is as follows: once a cost is “sunk” (ie. it cannot be recovered), we should never make a decision based on what has already been invested. For example, there is no point persevering with a bad film if you aren’t enjoying it – better to forget the time you’ve already wasted and watch something else. This kind of thinking can also apply to our personal lives; if a relationship is no longer enjoyable and run its course, we shouldn’t let the emotions we put in in the past affect the future.

Of course this second example is much easier said than done, as Leicester City’s owners can testify. The decision to sack Claudio Ranieri, whose title-winning heroics of last season still require a moment of self-pinching to remember it actually happened, must have been a very difficult one. Reaction by the football community was largely condemnatory. Gary Lineker tweeted that his sacking was “inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad”. Ian Herbert of The Independent went one further, describing it as “a despicable act of felony which shows how football has lost touch with its soul”.

However, in a sport where the irrational heart often leads the rational head, should Leicester’s board be credited for acting with tactical ruthlessness? It seems like the thinking behind of the sunk cost fallacy certainly played a part. The club’s King Power owners did not allow allegiances to Ranieri over last season’s glory to cloud their judgement. Rather, seven months into a difficult campaign with few signs of improvement, it was the smart – albeit unsentimental choice – to part company with the genial Italian.

Writing after the fact and a comprehensive 3-1 victory over Liverpool, this sounds easy to say in hindsight. However, it does seem like the energy Ranieri was once able to bring to the role had run dry. Reports of a rift with the players had bubbled under the surface for months and with strength in numbers, the power will always lie with the players. It’s a sad ending for a man who appeared to be adored by his tight-knit team – remember the stories of pizza-making after every clean sheet?

Ranieri deserves no less credit for his success just because he was not able to sustain it. He shed his reputation as ‘The Tinkerman’ by creating a small, integrated squad who quickly gained the confidence to realise they were capable of beating any side with their devastatingly direct brand of football.

Yet, it’s worth remembering just how many other factors were at play in Leicester’s remarkable success story, that are unlikely to ever be repeated. The scouting and recruitment – both at home and abroad – was exceptional. No one foresaw the likes of Vardy, Morgan and Drinkwater anywhere near a Premier League title, while the development of Mahrez and Kante has set a gold standard for what is available in Europe’s lower leagues. Ranieri also inherited a backroom staff committed to innovative sports science, who certainly played their part in keeping Leicester’s small squad largely injury-free all season.

Rich – and usually foreign – owners are an easy target for the woes of ‘modern football’. They are painted as cold, distant and out-of-touch with the true football fan. However, the sad reality is that Premier League survival is more crucial than ever and it would be churlish to suggest otherwise. There is a reason that “Doing a Leeds” has its own Wikipedia page. If Leicester ever want to consider a title challenge again, they simply cannot afford to drop out of the top flight this season while the core of that side is still together, irrespective of what Ranieri achieved last year.

@HugoGreenhalgh; @The_False_Nine

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