Claudio Ranieri exacerbated already existing problems at Fulham with his team selection, formation and baffling tactical approach, earning him the sack before the club’s inevitable relegation from the Premier League.
When Claudio Ranieri takes over a football club, it tends to go one of two ways: he either succeeds up to or beyond expectation, or it blows right up in his face. It is rarely in between.
At Chelsea, he brought a financially unstable club into the Champions League before Roman Abramovich transformed the Blues into a mega-money operation. The Greek national team, on the other hand, could not have been a greater disaster.
This dichotomy runs right through his career; Atletico Madrid? Disaster. First time at Valencia? Success. Second time? Disaster. Parma? Success. Juventus? Disaster. Roma? Success. Inter? Disaster. Monaco? Success. Leicester City? Well, you know.
The Italian’s spell at Nantes last season is the only one that defies a cut-and-dry verdict, a clear case of a tale of two halves. His time at Craven Cottage won’t be viewed so ambiguously.
After 17 games in charge, Ranieri was sacked by the owner, Shahid Khan, and with good reason. The Whites won a total of three of those games, equating to a dire win percentage of just under 18%, easily the worst record of his club career, while gaining an atrocious 0.75 points per game along the way. In the end, there was no decision to be made.
In the above examples I gave of Ranieri’s previous jobs, there are external factors that contributed to his performance in each respective job, particularly the failures. Atleti was run by the notoriously crooked and unstable Jesus Gil, Juventus were just recovering from the Calciopoli scandal, while at Greece there was too much of a desire from the association to change their style of football as quickly as possible.
Arriving at Fulham in November, Ranieri would have found a squad not strong enough to compete in the Premier League, with a defence incapable of keeping a clean sheet against anyone other than Newcastle United, the fourth-worst attack in the division at the time of writing. On top of that, there is the substandard recruitment, illustrated by the lack of value derived from over a £100m spent on transfers in the summer. That was hardly improved upon in January when the club signed Havard Nordtveit, Ryan Babel and Lazar Markovic.
It’s hard to know if many managers, if any, could have steered this comically bad team in the right direction, but Ranieri seemed to make it worse at times. Although this writer believes he has been unfairly dubbed the Tinkerman, he couldn’t help but live up to that moniker these past four months. His constant changes to the starting line-up baffled supporters, as did the line-ups themselves.
Ryan Sessegnon, the top assist-maker in the side, was often left out of the squad, while prime creative outlet Tom Cairney was shunted out to the right whenever he wasn’t warming the bench. This goes some of the way to explaining why Fulham have only scored more than one goal in a game on two occasions since his appointment.
Formations were equally hard to fathom, as he would constantly switch between a back four and five, not allowing time for the defensive line to settle on one or the other. Neither setup stemmed the flow of goals from going in. Fans booed when Ranieri switched to five at the back while the side was 2-0 down against Manchester United in an effort to keep the scoreline respectable rather than try to get back in the game. He might as well have flown a white flag there and then; in any case Paul Pogba scored a third anyway.
As the proceedings of that match illustrate, approach is often more important than the formation itself. Despite possessing one of the shortest and least domineering sides in the league, Ranieri chose to run with a direct and physical approach. Inevitably it did not work despite his repeated insistence that it could. Beyond that, he seemingly had no other ideas.
Following the attractive possession-based game instilled by Slavisa Jokanovic in his technically skilled side, Fulham decided to go down the opposite route with his replacement in order to shore up the defence. What the team probably needed was someone who sat somewhere along the spectrum, between these two schools of thinking rather than committed to one idea or the other. Southampton seem to have landed just the right guy in this regard, Ralph Hasenhuttl.
When Jokanovic was sacked, as a Fulham supporter I was genuinely sad to see him go, but I was also happy to see Ranieri take the reins in his stead. As I sit here now, however, I find it hard to choose the worst game of his tenure. There are so many terrible ones to choose from, but getting dumped out of the FA Cup third round to League Two outfit Oldham Athletic like a legless drunk being kicked out of a club before the night has even got going has to be up there.
One impression I have of Ranieri as he sets off into the unemployment line just 106 days after starting, is that he never seemed to take the fans to his heart the way other managers have. While that is no reflection on his managerial chops or indeed anyone’s ability to do the job, it certainly added to the feeling that this was just never meant to be.