When Jurgen Klopp meets Claudio Ranieri tomorrow, he will be shaking hands with the ninth different manager that Watford have employed since he arrived at Liverpool in 2015. Ranieri, for his part, will be taking charge of his sixth club in that same period.
With Watford having gone through 14 bosses since the Pozzo family assumed control of the club in 2012 and with Ranieri having held 21 previous managerial roles, the question is not so much why him as, how come it’s taken this long?
While Ranieri is primarily famous on these shores for his unbelievable title triumph with Leicester, relegation with Fulham and an entertaining spell at pre-Abramovich Chelsea, the veteran Italian’s continent-travelling odyssey of a career — with all the highs and lows one would expect of such a long and varied working life — is exactly the sort of CV to which Watford’s owners are attracted.
The Foxes’ annus mirabilis of 2015/16 will always be associated with the 69-year-old but as relevant to the Pozzo regime is Ranieri’s most recent work — saving Sampdoria from relegation in 2020 before shepherding them to the safety of mid-table the following season.
And while his last spell in England ended in a relegation Fulham never looked remotely likely to avoid, Watford will gamble that failure said more about the relative merits of the Cottagers squad compared to their own, and little of their new manager’s ability.
In short, Ranieri’s reputation on these shores is a conundrum. A tinkerman at Chelsea, miracle worker at Leicester and failure with Fulham.
All three spells coming with a healthy dose of comedic charm for the cameras and tape recorders of the press — remember the dilly-ding dilly-dong — plus crowd-pleasing stunts like rewarding his Leicester players with pizza for keeping a clean sheet.
Such is Ranieri’s persona, even his greatest achievement is regarded with a degree of suspicion; Leicester’s very feat of conquering the top flight as 5,000/1 outsiders so outlandish it’s as if luck played as big, perhaps even greater, role than the manager.
His predecessor Nigel Pearson is given credit for building the squad, while Ranieri’s sacking, less than a year after the confetti fluttered over the King Power, was shot through with rumours of player power — strongly denied by all.
And yet, in Europe, the perception of Ranieri is very different. And it is on the continent that the Pozzos have turned for all but two of the minibus full of managers they have tried out since taking over at Vicarage Road in 2012.
There, Ranieri is the manager who has won promotions, cups and continental competitions in Italy, France and Spain. A manager who, over the past decade, has become comfortable operating at short notice, on short-term deals and often with another man’s squad.
After Leicester, an unremarkable season with Nantes was followed by a crowd-pleasing caretaker stint at Roma, the hometown club who gave him his chance as a player. Next came that Sampdoria SOS. If Ranieri’s transformation into managerial firefighter — the Roman Sam Allardyce — has forced him to adapt to different circumstances and unbalanced squads, his methods have remained largely the same.
‘If a coach feels like he is at comfort with one particular set-up, why change it?,’ he told La Gazzetta dello Sport in 2016, going on to admit he does not mind if his teams don’t keep the ball, providing they are quick to cause damage when they do. ‘In Valencia, in the late 90s, they wanted me to play tiki taka. But I told the directors, “You signed the wrong coach, I don’t like to keep the ball”. I was sure they’d kick me out. But they showed me trust, because my boys used to run like the wind,’ he continued.
‘Today, some complain Leicester lose too many balls. But that’s only natural, when your team plays at the speed of light. Spectators like us because we create many scoring chances.’
But while Ranieri might care little for possession statistics, he cares a great deal about what his team do when they don’t have it.
Rigid 4-4-2, organised and pressing high. The Italian way, with an Anglo-Saxon dose of hard-running honesty. Not for nothing were Ranieri’s Leicester compared favourably with Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, another of the Italian’s former clubs.
‘I give my strikers the freedom to attack and cut across the lines, as long as we immediately return to a 4-4-2 as soon as the ball is lost. I always tell them, “Remember that I am Italian, we must know how to defend before anything else”.’
The Pozzo family, of course, are also Italian and the familiarities at Watford don’t end there.
In Ismaila Sarr, Ranieri has one of the most dynamic attackers in the Premier League. A lightning quick forward with four goals to his name already and a willing accomplice in Joshua King, just the kind of players to make a success of Ranieri’s plan to turn stout defence into rapid attack. And that defence is not so bad anyway, with Wolves the only club in the bottom half of the table to let in fewer goals than the ten conceded by Watford so far this season. Championship winners Norwich, by contrast, have conceded 16, as have Newcastle. Leeds have shipped 14.
Meeting the media in Hertfordshire for the first time this week Ranieri offered the expected humorous soundbites — forget pizza, if his new team keep a clean sheet against Liverpool tomorrow, he will pay for dinner.
But he was also quick to emphasise the qualities he demands of his players.
‘I love English football but I loved it before I arrived (at Chelsea) in 2000.
‘My style was very similar to English football. Very tough, very strong, every duel and that’s what I want from my players. I want them to play with an honest tackle and sporting, but also I want to see the spirit.’
What he does not want is any guarantee of long-term employment, conceding the Watford way is ‘normal’ for Italian owners and not something he is worried about.
Watford and Ranieri. It might not last, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t made for each other.
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