“Without football I am without life. For me it’s important.” And with that Claudio Ranieri is back in the Premier League at an age when he could be doing other things in his life without a football involved.
A granddad, father and husband, the Italian has spent the past six months since being relieved of his duties at Nantes, enjoying the finer things in life. Despite all of the theatre productions he has been to see and the many restaurants that he has offered his palette to, he is not just happy but full of hunger now he is back.
The task at Fulham is somewhat of a familiar one for Ranieri. In fact, it might even be deemed his party piece; saving a team from impending relegation doom. When taking over at Leicester City just after the team had miraculous survived the drop with seven wins from their last nine league matches the demand was very much for survival for another season. The rest they say is history.
Parma experience will aid Ranieri
But going further back in Ranieri’s managerial career – and it is a long career stretching back to the mid-eighties and through 17 clubs – and his appointment at Parma in 2007, the similarities with his task today are striking.
It was 23 matches into the Serie A season when Ranieri took charge in Emilia-Romagna with his new club deep in relegation trouble. He lost his first game, 1-0 against Sampdoria, but subsequently managed to make several impressive results to help save Parma from relegation – obtaining 17 points from 10 matches.
Ranieri has always seemed to manage to achieve the improbable and keeping Parma in Serie A that season is arguably one of his finest works in the technical area. For them to finish in 13th place along with scoring 24 goals in 16 matches was quite an achievement.
But despite Ranieri’s heroic act, he was gone in the following summer. He resigned with rumours rife that he would be joining Manchester City, but he never did. And despite also being linked with Palermo and even Fulham, he stayed in Italy and joined Juventus on a three-year deal.
Now he has joined Fulham, his local club, and straight away he has his focus drawn on the defence. “I am an Italian manager,” Ranieri said at his unveiling. “For us Italians, it’s important to maintain the clean sheet.” At Fulham this season that appears easier said than done.
Defensive issues must be addressed
Nevertheless, like at Parma, and also at Leicester – but on a slightly different scale – Ranieri will aim to serve up a miracle. Revamping the league’s worst defence requires attending to their general approach to basics such as positioning, discipline and out-of-possession work in a team that at times looks chaotic.
Bringing the calm is what Ranieri tends to do very well, but there is so much more too. He is a serious operator. To read Ranieri’s ‘Cuddly Claudio’ caricature word for word would be misleading, he is hard-nosed and some. Turning Leicester from the fourth worst team for conceding goals into title winners involved a dogmatic approach, but the key is that Ranieri knows what to be dogmatic about and doesn’t waste his time changing what currently works.
“Core values but an open mind” is a management philosophy with which Ranieri may identify. At Parma, he took what was positive – a relatively strong defensive record – and built from there. Like the situation that he entered into back in February 2007, all is not bad at Fulham. If he leaves untouched some of the possession play and flair while addressing defensive basics, they have the players to survive.
Identifying a first-choice goalkeeper is one priority, and forging a cohesive and stable back four is another. So too is restarting Ryan Sessegnon’s development and working out how to turn Aleksandar Mitrovic into a more potent striker. There is plenty of room for Ranieri’s hard-nosed approach to come into play, but it needs to be sooner rather than later.
Dogmatic but calm approach
For a manager now in his 18th appointment, the experience gained – at Parma and beyond – is both useful and a burden. “I have said I don’t look behind me but on my shoulder, in my mind, is all my career. And I can give to my players all my career. My knowledge. I will give them everything,” he said. “I hope they take ambition [from me], because I am an ambitious man.”
This being the last international break until March did represent Fulham’s best, and in many ways only, chance to press reset in the dugout. During Slavisa Jokanovic’s last match in charge when, although he was ultimately unlucky to leave Anfield as the losing manager, it was clear that there were areas that needed addressing and a change of management deemed necessary.
One slight surprise is that such a change was made directly before a match against fellow strugglers Southampton, in which a win – even being Ranieri’s first match in charge – is considered a must.
But from the off, there will be a sense that Ranieri will want to prove that he is still fit for management despite his recent achievements. Time waits for no man and, at 67, he most likely won’t have too many more suitors after Fulham. He still has the energy and the passion to succeed at the top.
“I feel good when I stay on the pitch, when I speak with players, when I am very hungry. That is my life,” Ranieri said.
“I started at 16 years of age and all my life is this, football.” Whether he indeed takes inspiration from his time with Parma over a decade ago will have to be seen, but the task is comparable. “When I’m on the job I’m calm;” that’s what Ranieri brought to Parma and Fulham will hope for more of the same.