It was the greatest managerial achievement in the history of English league football. Leicester City had only narrowly avoided relegation to the Championship in 2014/15 and were 500/1 outsiders to win the Premier League title the following year, but Claudio Ranieri masterminded what many have called the biggest sporting upset of all time. The veteran Italian is now back on English soil at the other end of the top flight, having replaced Slavisa Jokanovic as boss of rock-bottom Fulham last week.
The Cottagers, it is fair to say, have had a poor start to the campaign. Last season’s play-off winners spent heavily in the summer, splashing £105.3m on new players – more than anyone in the division with the exception of Manchester City and Liverpool. Supporters were understandably excited at the addition of 12 new first-teamers including Andre Schurrle, Luciano Vietto and former Barcelona target Jean Seri, but a 2-0 home defeat by Crystal Palace on the opening day served as a reminder that the Cottagers should not set their sights on anything more than survival in their first season back at the top table.
Jokanovic may have expected results to pick up once his new-look squad began to gel, but Fulham failed to build on a 4-2 victory over Burnley in their third encounter. A 2-2 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion followed, before the west Londoners took just a single point from the next 24 on offer. That dismal stretch included losses to Cardiff, Bournemouth and Huddersfield, with Fulham repeatedly undermined by their defensive openness – they have conceded 31 goals in their opening 12 encounters, which is six more than anyone else in the Premier League.
Jokanovic was unable to tighten up his side’s rearguard, but the board probably acted when they did because goals at the other end had started to dry up: Fulham failed to score in their last three games under the Serb, firing blanks in losses to Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Liverpool.
Nevertheless, Ranieri’s first task will be to ensure the Cottagers stop shipping goals at such an unsustainable rate. Jokanovic’s consant chopping and changing of his four defenders and goalkeeper did not exactly help foster cohesion at the back, so we can expect his successor to settle on a favoured quintet and stick with it. Fulham, who have registered the eighth-highest average possession figures so far, may also adopt more of a counter-attacking approach, while Ranieri has hinted that he may also shift to a two-striker system.
The 67-year-old has managed several big clubs across Europe, including spells at the helm of Napoli, Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Roma, Juventus and Inter in a career which has spanned more than three decades. Rather than his exploits with the above, though, Fulham fans will take most heart from Ranieri’s accomplishments at Parma, who looked doomed to relegation in 2007 before being pulled clear of danger by the former defender. The Gialloblù were four points adrift of safety after 23 matches following a 1-0 defeat by Sampdoria in Ranieri’s first game in the dugout, but a run of seven wins and six draws in their remaining 15 assignments saw them finish comfortably in mid-table.
“I don't know how much time I need to improve the defence,” Ranieri told reporters at his introductory press conference. “It depends how long it takes them to understand my philosophy. We have to defend altogether and attack altogether. I have to work hard and I know I don't have time. It's a big battle.
“When changing the manager, you change the air in the dressing room. Maybe some players didn't play with the previous manager and with the new manager they give more, because maybe there is more feeling. I believe I have very good players but they must have to show me the fighting spirit.”
A home clash with struggling Southampton on Saturday represents a terrific chance for Ranieri to get off to a winning start as Fulham boss. There is plenty of talent within the ranks at Craven Cottage; now it is up to the Italian to fashion a whole which is at least equal to the sum of its parts.
(Greg Lea of thesetpieces.com).
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