We've reached the point of the English Premier League campaign where Leicester City's title run no longer defies logic.
This should have been obvious prior to the league leaders demolishing second-place Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad on Saturday. Casual racism aside, there is nothing amiss about Jamie Vardy, the league's top goal scorer, and his pace and precision up top. To watch Riyad Mahrez spin and topple Nicolas Otamendi, an international class defender, like a dreidel, confirms why the same big clubs currently chasing Leicester's dust will jostle to sign him this summer. Still, a club like Leicester has never won the Premier League since the league's 1992 inception, and so people are still skeptical that a preseason relegation candidate can stymie one continental power after another. A win against Arsenal at Emirates on Sunday may start convincing people that Leicester can actually claim the title.
That, in turn, would require a reconsideration of the man spearheading the title push.
Make no mistake: the single most bizarre outcome of all would be Claudio Ranieri, patron saint of competence, authoring the most spectacular EPL championship run in history. Ranieri is the man clubs hire when their houses fall into disrepair, only the 64-year-old's renovations have never involved sledgehammering down walls or turning cottages into mansions. There are no roster makeovers or tactical revolutions in the offing whenever he's brought on board.
Rather, the Tinkerman does precisely what his name suggests–tweak, tidy, touch-up and polish. When Rafa Benitez left Valencia for Liverpool in 2004, Ranieri stepped in and won the UEFA Super Cup. When Parma were halfway through the relegation trap door in 2007, Ranieri tugged them up the table and back to safety. Shortly afterward, he secured a Champions League place for Juventus in 2007 in their first season back in Serie A after being relegated for match-fixing.
Claudio Ranieri was the manager who took Roma to within a hair of the Serie A title in 2010; he did it in relief of Luciano Spalletti, who couldn't coax the team into even a passing effort on defense. Ranieri topped himself in 2012, winning the Ligue 2 Championship with Monaco and following it up with a second-place finish the next year in Ligue 1. He's soccer's Winston Wolf, minus the mustache and plus a little paunch.
Thing is, his solutions never entirely take. Valencia cratered not long after the Super Cup. Roma gagged away the league lead with four matches remaining. Juventus and Monaco regressed almost as quickly as they surged in the first place. Chelsea's dominance in England only began in earnest when Ranieri was booted for Jose Mourinho; years later, Ranieri was one of many who failed to rudder the Champions League-winning Inter Milan after The Special One's exit. There is good reason for Leicester being Ranieri's 16th club in 29 seasons of coaching.
So while Gary Lineker's preseason assessment of Ranieri being an "uninspired" name that "keep[s] getting a go on the managerial merry-go-round" has been mocked in retrospect, it wasn't exactly wrong.
The same cognitive dissonance that informs the refusal of so many to buy into Leicester's results also informs the way Ranieri is perceived. He must to be doing something differently, the thinking goes, and so the deluge of pundit explanations begins. A relatively boilerplate strategy of rest, cheat meals and team chemistry is transformed into Club Secrets, or the careful use of a Kasabian song becomes motivational genius. Rather than conform in the age of the 4-5-1 or 4-3-3, Ranieri is the iconoclast who wed this club to the supposedly obsolete 4-4-2.
After years of meddling too much for his own good, perhaps Ranieri saw his oncoming career winter and decided to change course. Or not. If there's magic here, perhaps it's nothing more than recasting ultimate retread as a born-again savant, just long enough for him to finish the job.
And if that's what this amounts to, then that's OK. Because, really, it's more fun if Ranieri hasn't changed and this is all one spectacular illusion. Sports are at their best when they defy explanation; try as anyone might, there's precious little to account for Ranieri being the architect behind all of this. There are still three months left in the campaign, plenty of time for Leicester to stall out and drift back into the pack, the way Ranieri's Roma team did six years ago. But while Roma is a traditional Italian power, Leicester is a yo-yo club generally content to stay up another season. However this ends, the only sensible thing is to enjoy the ride. It's no different for the man steering the ship.
It's probably too late for Claudio Ranieri to be regarded as anything but the Tinkerman. He has displayed too many shortcomings in too many places for one championship–even this championship–to change that. For now, though, he's something more. Who's to say it's sleight-of-hand if we all see it happen?