A LOT OF MANAGERS WHO’VE MADE THE ROUNDS in European football have relatively concrete reputations. A given title run might stick out as a crowning achievement, a particularly rough sacking can leave a lingering stain, and in some cases a manager is simply viewed as a journeyman. It’s probably the last category that Claudio Ranieri fits into most appropriately, as the Italian manager has led well over ten European clubs since the mid-1980s.
It feels like quite some time ago that Ranieri really made his name via successful stints with Cagliari and Napoli. In those stints, he promptly got Cagliari promoted to Serie A all the way from the third division, and he then guided Napoli to a fourth place finish in his first season at the helm. There was no noteworthy hardware from either job, but both were successful. Had they not been, we may well not be talking about Ranieri as a noteworthy manager any longer.
But for many, it was the Chelsea job Ranieri secured back in 2000 that really marked his emergence as a significant name in the European coaching ranks. It was a mildly surprising hire at the time given Ranieri was coming off a poor stretch with Atlético Madrid, who were relegated just after the coach resigned. But Chelsea picked him up, and for the next four seasons Ranieri turned around the struggling club and laid the foundation for much of their wildly successful run under José Mourinho.
For those who don’t pay particularly close attention to Chelsea or didn’t follow the club in the early-2000s, that might sound like a somewhat-outlandish claim. Due in part to his general reputation, but also to the tangible triumphs he achieved at Stamford Bridge in his first spell as manager there, Mourinho tends to get the credit for the club’s success between 2004 and 2007 – and rightfully so. Mourinho was the man in charge during that stretch and earned every bit of credit he receives. But there’s so much turnover in European football that it’s often true that credit should be shared between a manager and his predecessor.
Along these lines, it was recently suggested by the Standard that Chelsea fans have a lot to thank Claudio Ranieri for. Not only did he take them from a sixth-place finish in his first season to an EPL runner-up in 2004 (second only to Arsenal’s infamous “Invincibles” squad), but his personnel decisions helped to equip Mourinho with the roster that went on to win titles. Ranieri is responsible for bringing the likes of Frank Lampard and Petr Čech on board. He helped John Terry to adjust to a larger role (though it’s debatable this would have happened regardless of who was in charge) and even set the club’s sights on the likes of Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben, though he didn’t actually sign either player personally.
Frankly, when you look back at the timeline of Ranieri’s accomplishments at Chelsea, the decision to let him go is a little bit baffling. While he didn’t actually win any silverware, Ranieri showed clear improvement in each of his four seasons heading up the club and had them poised to contend for titles both domestically and in Europe. As the story goes, owner Roman Abramovich, who took over the team in 2003, simply wanted a bigger name (or even a non-Italian name, perhaps) in charge of Chelsea. He got exactly that when he replaced Ranieri with Mourinho, and while that was a pretty clear decision at the time, it was poor reward for all that Ranieri accomplished.
The result for Ranieri was that he went back to his journeyman ways, abandoning Premier League pursuits and proceeding to bounce around Europe with mixed success. He’s yet to stay with a club for more than two seasons since the Chelsea exit and for most of 2014, he focused primarily on the Greek national team. This prompted some to wonder if he might be done with the club level for a while.
But then came Leicester City, who signed Ranieri in July 2015 after an unremarkable 14th place finish in 2014-15. The deal was for three years, which certainly doesn’t guarantee that Ranieri will stick around that long. However, the results have already been far more than anyone in the Leicester City offices could have asked for or predicted. Heading into the holidays through 17 weeks of league play, Ranieri has his club alone atop the Premier League standings with 38 out of a possible 51 points. Surely it’s particularly sweet for the manager given that in this same year we’ve seen an historic collapse at Stamford Bridge, resulting in Mourinho’s being let go from his second stint with Chelsea.
Now the Premier League is in something of an awkward stage, as folks are looking for a favourite in Chelsea’s absence and in many cases refusing to accept Leicester City. Yet, with each passing week the club only seems to prove itself further as a legitimate contender for the domestic title. Following the club’s latest triumph – a 3-2 win over Everton – it was pointed out by Bwin News that Leicester City is actually still improving and that there are more signs that the club’s run atop the standings may be sustainable. Whereas early on they were mostly beating up on lesser opponents and doing so behind a scintillating performance from striker Jamie Vardy, they’ve been conquering better teams of late. Also, the Vardy dependence is diminishing.
And now Ranieri finds himself in a position he’s never been in despite nearly 30 years of high-level managing experience. Once branded with the nickname “The Tinkerman” for his occasionally unorthodox changes to lineups and tactics, not to mention his frequent restructuring of rosters, Ranieri now has a team that doesn’t appear to need any adjusting. In all likelihood, even the bosses at Leicester brought him in with the expectation of some level of restructuring, and yet here they sit in mid-December with sole possession of first place. Ranieri’s task now is to not shake up the foundation or alter the trajectory – the things for which he’s been best known in the past. He needs to maintain the status quo as long as possible.
It’s just the latest chapter in what’s really been a fascinating managerial career.