Fulham have simultaneously appointed Claudio Ranieri as head coach and sacked Slavisla Jokanovic after The Cottagers went nine games without a win in the Premier League, leaving them languishing at the bottom of the table.
A glittering 18-month virtual reverie at the helm of Leicester City saw Ranieri become eternal in the hearts and minds of Foxes and English Football fans in general. Ranieri arguably enjoyed the most successful short-term stint of any manager in the history of the Premier League when he managed to clinch the league title in 2016.
Fulham is the 18th club Ranieri has led since he embarked on his managerial career immediately after his playing days ceased 32 years ago, with spells in charge in five countries – Italy, England, Spain, France and a brief unsuccessful stint in international management with Greece.
After a four-year hiatus from the prestigious Premier League, Fulham won promotion back to England’s top-flight in last season’s Championship play-off final and owner Shahid Khan is hellbent on keeping them there.
However with only one win in 12 outings and the worst defensive record in the league (31 goals conceded and a goal difference of minus 20) the Fulham board and owner Khan were left with no choice but to dismiss Jokanovic, as we creep towards the busy Christmas period, and a crucially important January transfer window.
Jokanovic will be disappointed not to see out Fulham’s campaign after winning promotion back into the Premier League last season, but can have no complaints as he failed to plug a Fulham defence which has been haemorrhaging goals and a scoring record averaging less than a goal per game at 0.92.
Both Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town recently recorded their first wins of the season, lifting them away from Fulham as they attempt to gain some momentum to help them in the relegation dogfight. With such mounting pressure on misfiring Fulham to put some points on the board, it’s understandable to see why Khan leapt at Ranieri in a prompt and pragmatic immediate switch.
“I wasn’t anticipating having to make this announcement related to Slavisa [Jokanovic] and wish the circumstances were such that I didn’t have to, but our path this season has led me to make what I know is the correct decision, at the right time, for our players, the Club and our supporters,” Khan told reporters.
Such a “risk-free” move back to London, where Ranieri enjoyed his time at Chelsea before the arrival of Russian billionaire businessman Abramovich, would have been difficult to turn down. The Italian, who still owns property in London, will undoubtedly be welcomed back to England with open arms. He is revered by fans and the media alike, not just for his magnificent achievement with Leicester, but also for his warm personality and genuine likability. For Ranieri, England will forever be a home away from home.
Not even the most optimistic of Fulham fans would have the temerity to expect such a rapid turnaround in their fortunes, the likes of which arrived with him at Leicester City, but if Ranieri can save the West Londoners from the drop, he will ultimately be judged as a success yet again.
In Ranieri, Fulham have a coach who has a proven track record of achieving immediate success. What he hasn’t been able to achieve is sustained success, with four years being the longest spell in charge in any of his previous 17 teams managed and quite a number of sackings to boot. However, that is not the concerning issue for Fulham, who are focusing on today’s problem – turning around one of the worst recorded starts to a Premier League season.
In his first job in professional management in 1988, Ranieri led Cagliari from the Italian third division Serie C1 to Serie A in back-to-back promotions. He later achieved similar success in Italy with Fiorentina, winning the Serie B title in his debut season in 1993/94, accomplishing subsequent success in Serie A, while also going on to win the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana the following year.
More recently however, his successes have come in winning Monaco the Ligue 2 title in 2012/13 after relegation from the top flight the previous season, and of course Leicester City’s triumphant assault on the 2015/16 Premier League.
Despite a disappointing season at Nantes last year, Ranieri did win six of his first ten league games. More comparable to Ranieri’s challenge at Fulham is his time as head coach with Parma. When he took over Parma in 2007, they were 18th in the Serie A, having won just one of 13 league matches, but climbed up to 12th by May after a run of 16 games where they were beaten only three times. This is the type of success he needs to secure at Fulham, and it is very much attainable as they are only three points from climbing out of the drop zone with a hefty 26 games still to play.
But what was it that Ranieri did to exact the qualities produced by the Leicester players in the 2015/16 Premier League season, and can he use the same attributes to achieve relative success at Fulham?
Ranieri virtually ripped up his the rule book of management at Leicester. Unlike a Conte, Mourinho or Guardiola, his approach was simple, almost carefree in its early stages. He didn’t try to micro-manage player positioning and shackle them to a stringent philosophy, ubiquitous in sides fighting for survival in a league where every point is crucial. A Premier League title was never on the cards, or so it seemed.
He gave his side the freedom to express themselves and create, and allowed his players to play to their biggest strengths. Like a young coach handling a squad of Saturday morning toddlers, Ranieri famously rewarded his Leicester City players by buying them all pizza if they kept a clean sheet. Sounds too simple and childish to have bred such success in the modern game, but it did.
His simple philosophy, fearless attitude and man-management sprinkled with a bit of good fortune – and of course N’Golo Kante – were enough to decide the 2016 Premier League, and Fulham fans are hopeful he can draw on his experience to bring reasonable success back to Craven Cottage.
The 5000-1 shot of Leicester City clinching the 2015/16 Premier League is likely never to reoccur in our lifetime, but take nothing away from Ranieri. He is back in London with a purpose.
“It is an honour to accept Mr. [Shahid] Khan’s invitation and opportunity to lead Fulham, a fantastic club with tradition and history,” Ranieri said at his unveiling.
“The objective at Fulham should never be to merely survive in the Premier League. We must at all times be a difficult opponent and should expect to succeed. This Fulham squad has exceptional talent that is contrary to its position in the table. I know this team is very capable of better performances, which we will work on straight away as we prepare for Southampton at the Cottage.”
It is obvious that quality courses through this under-performing Fulham side, with Mitrovic and Schurrle well able to bag some goals, the creative talent possessed by English youngster Ryan Sessegnon and the tenacious Ivorian Jean Michel Seri’s ability to break midfield lines.
The key for Ranieri will be to re-structure the Fulham defence (similar to Leicester when he switched from a back three to back four), bolster the midfield and allow the creative abilities of his attacking talents to shine. More importantly, he has the time on his side to do it.
He will have eight Premier League games to get a grasp on his squad (with five of those fixtures against teams in the bottom half of the table) before the opening of the January transfer window allows Fulham to bolster their squad for the second half of the season.
Fulham have a pivotal opportunity to kickstart Ranieri’s reign after the international break when they host struggling Southampton at Craven Cottage, before facing a tough trip to the Italian’s former club Chelsea at Stamford Bridge the following week.
“Dilly-ding, dilly-dong!” Ranieri is back in town.