Claudio Ranieri: A do-nothing tactical master?

Formerly known as the Tinker Man, the Italian has changed his philosophy this season

Claudio Ranieri has taken a vastly different approach to management at Leicester compared to what he did at Chelsea. Photo: Reuters

Claudio Ranieri has taken a vastly different approach to management at Leicester compared to what he did at Chelsea. Photo: Reuters

 

Everybody had known the end was coming for Claudio Ranieri at Chelsea, but the moment at which the decision seemed made – and, more than that, was made to seem justified – came in Monte Carlo in April 2004 when he presided over a substitution that appeared baffling at the time and proved disastrous in retrospect. It is easy to pick fault with hindsight but this was one of those rare occasions when everyone reacts as one. After 62 minutes the board went up: Mario Melchiot off and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on. What was he doing?

As the Champions League semi-final began, there was still perhaps a thought that Ranieri might save himself if Chelsea could win the competition. The path had opened up for them: Monaco, Porto and Deportivo La Coruña did not represent the most imposing semi-final lineup.

Dado Prso headed Monaco into a 15th-minute lead but Hernán Crespo levelled six minutes later after a prone Eidur Gudjohnsen had forced Frank Lampard’s cross on to him. Seven minutes into the second half Chelsea seemed to have been put in complete control when Urs Meier sent off Andreas Zikos for a gentle push to the back of Claude Makélélé’s head. And then came the fateful substitution.

Hasselbaink, Gudjohnsen and Crespo got in each other’s way. Jesper Gronkjaer had gone off for Juan Sebastián Verón at half-time which meant there was no width. Monaco were able to pack men in the centre and Chelsea, with few options to stretch the play, ended up trying to batter their way through.

Worse, Monaco still posed an attacking threat, something Ranieri acknowledged seven minutes later with another substitution, bringing on Robert Huth for Scott Parker. It wasn’t enough. As Chelsea desperately chased a goal to take advantage of the situation, Monaco hit them twice on the break, through Fernando Morientes and Shabani Nonda.

Nobody was in any doubt whose fault it was. “Ranieri can rarely have exerted so great an influence or done such harm with it,” said Kevin McCarra in this paper. Glenn Moore in the Independent spoke of “a series of substitutions that destabilised his team so badly they threw away a winning hand”, while Henry Winter in the Telegraph bemoaned Ranieri’s “bizarre second-half tinkering”.

In his post-match press-conference Ranieri seemed disgusted with himself. “It was my fault,” he said. “After 30 years in football I know I have to accept that. With one player more I wanted to win the match. Everybody wanted to do something more, to run with ball and not to combine with the other players.”

With the prize within reach he had snatched at it – perhaps even been tempted into an eye-catching substitution to emphasise his agency – and been caught off-balance. Under pressure, he had made a terrible tactical error.

One mistake should never be allowed to colour an entire reputation but that game seemed emblematic of a wider problem. Ranieri’s tinkering in those days seemed inveterate, almost out of control. Rotation is one thing, but it seemed as if he had no idea what combinations would work in what circumstance.

Contrast that to this season, where he has made just 27 changes to his starting lineup. He is older now, and perhaps wiser. Certainly he is under less pressure and so probably able to think more clearly. Or perhaps it’s merely the environment: Leicester’s squad is smaller so there are fewer options. Whether for reasons of luck or the efforts of their medical department, Leicester have had very few injuries this season. With no European football, Leicester’s title charge has been uniquely unburdened by midweek fixtures.

There was a temptation earlier in the season to think that Ranieri was reaping the harvest Nigel Pearson had sown but, while he has certainly benefited from Pearson’s preparations, this is now discernibly his side. The back three has been replaced by a tight back four. The defence has improved immeasurably: from no clean sheets in the first nine league games of the season to 12 in the past 17. “He understood the way we avoided relegation and wanted to keep the formula,” said Wes Morgan. “He’s just tinkered a bit in terms of tactical positioning.”

If not doing anything is the right thing to do, doing nothing is just as worthy of praise as a conspicuous statement of intent. And when there has been a need for an adjustment, Ranieri has made it. On Sunday against Swansea, with Jamie Vardy suspended, he was forced to bring in Leonardo Ulloa. But Ranieri also made one other change, leaving out Marc Albrighton, who had started 33 of 34 league games this season, for Jeffrey Schlupp.

Without Vardy, he felt he needed pace elsewhere in the side to ensure Leicester still offered the same threat on the counter, to prevent Swansea’s defence pushing high and pressuring his midfield. It was a decision that had been thoroughly vindicated even before Schlupp laid on the third for Ulloa.

Perhaps Monaco 2004 and Swansea 2016 demonstrate nothing more than that it is easier to make good decisions when things are going well. Perhaps Ranieri’s decisiveness this season when set against his apparent dithering at Chelsea is evidence he is better suited to a club with fewer egos to satisfy. Or perhaps Ranieri is simply a better tactician than he was ever given credit for in that tumultuous final season at Chelsea.

(Guardian service)

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