LONDON – When Diego Simeone shakes hands with Craig Shakespeare next Wednesday the Atletico Madrid coach will have little idea about his opponent. In fairness, even in England few do. When your club reaches the last eight of the Champions League the manager has usually excelled in the competition and won domestic honors. Leicester City manager Shakespeare is best known for his surname.
Before he took over from Claudio Ranieri, Shakespeare’s managerial career had comprised one match as West Bromwich’s caretaker manager in 2006, beating Crystal Palace 2-0 away. His CV looks significantly different now.
Shakey, as he is inevitably called (it is unlikely his namesake, William, shared the nickname), became the first British manager to win his first five league games in charge when Leicester defeated Sunderland on Tuesday. The Foxes have won all six league and cup matches since Shakespeare was appointed manager until the end of the season. Less than two months ago, Leicester and basement club Sunderland were separated by two points, but by full-time on Tuesday that gap was 16. Shakespeare was also part of Sam Allardyce’s England coaching team, with the pair winning their only match, in Slovakia. He refers to himself as the Lucky One, but Shakespeare obviously has the midas touch.
Many believed Ranieri’s sacking was harsh given he had led Leicester to the title last May. As the champions flirted with relegation owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha made a difficult and,in the eyes of many, wrong decision to replace Ranieri with his assistant though subsequent results have proved there was method in his apparent madness.
Inevitably because of the dramatic change in fortunes under Shakespeare there remains the perception that the players were no longer doing it for Ranieri. I do not buy this because I cannot see how Premier League players can give anything less than 100 percent.
Do they run slower or pass less accurately?
The reasons for Leicester’s poor results this season are more to do with indifferent recruitment last summer, the loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea which affected the side’s tactics plus some baffling team selections and substitutions by Ranieri.
During the Italian’s reign Leicester was geared toward controlling possession and hitting opponents with swift counter-attacks to utilize the pace of Jamie Vardy, but the loss of Kante, who was so important to the way Leicester played, made this more difficult to operate. Shakespeare has effectively replaced Kante with two holding midfielders — Wilfred Ndidi and Danny Drinkwater — and revamped Leicester’s offense with wingers Riyad Mahrez and Demarai Gray or Marc Albrighton creating more chances for Vardy, who has scored five goals in his last six matches, and Japan international Shinji Okazaki.
Shakespeare faces a dilemma for Sunday’s match at Everton because three days later it faces Atletico in the cauldron that is the Calderon. Leicester is 11th and eight points off the drop-zone, but he is aware that a couple of bad results can change what is, at the moment, a satisfactory scenario. However, Shakespeare is likely to rest two or three key players for the trip to Goodison Park against Ronald Koeman’s in-form team because the Champions League represents a chance for Leicester to test itself against a true European superpower.
Atletico has reached the final twice in the past three years, but Shakespeare said Leicester must believe it can win the competition.
He said: “Why not? We are in it, we have to try to be competitive in every match. For me there is no free game in football. You have to try to win every game you go in to and show determination and competitiveness. We need to show that in abundance on Wednesday night.”
A Leicester win in Madrid may sound mission impossible, but do not rule out Shakespeare having the last word.
Making an impact
Why has Hull appointed Mauro Silva?
It was a headline in the local newspaper on Jan. 5 when the Portuguese succeeded Mike Phelan.
Because we had not heard of him, how could he be any good?
OK, he won the title with Olympiacos, but it wins the Greek title every year. There are plenty of decent British managers looking for a job, so why give it to somebody we don’t know?
The English arrogance quickly kicked in, but three months later we know why Hull gave Silva the job until the end of the season. From being odds-on to be relegated, Hull is now two points above the relegation zone and Saturday’s match at Manchester City is not the foregone conclusion it would have been earlier in the season.
Wednesday’s 4-2 win over Middlesbrough was Silva’s 40th home league match without defeat, a record stretching back to March 2015, including spells with Estoril, Sporting Lisbon and Olympiacos. He has changed much of the culture at the club on and off the field and is literally a hands-on coach as he can be seen dragging defenders into position during practice at the Cottingham training base.
Silva has also overhauled the club’s technical staff with assistant Joao Pedro Sousa, first-team coach Goncalo Pedro and goalkeeping coach Hugo Oliveira coming on board. Sweet desserts in the canteen after practice are banned and instead of making their own way to KCOM Stadium the squad now has a pre-match meal at a hotel before the coach takes the players to the stadium.
Video analysis of games has also been made a priority while days off are a thing of the past.
Hull sold star players Robert Snodgrass to West Ham and Jake Livermore to West Bromwich, which many assumed was as good as waving the white flag of relegation.
In came Andrea Ranocchia (Inter), Alfred N’Diaye (Villarreal), Oumar Niasse (Everton), Lazar Markovic (Liverpool) and Omar Elabdellaoui (Olympiacos) and the unknowns on loan have helped to transform Hull, which is now unbeaten in seven league matches. Since Silva took over only Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton have won more points.
“It’s important to be out of the bottom three, but nothing has finished,” he said. “Of course it is good for our players and our fans as well to look at the table and see where we are. Our position is different now, but we must continue our progress step by step. It’s a very good challenge for us.”
Johnny Foreigner isn’t doing a bad job after all.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.