The Italian has ditched the ‘loser’ tag bestowed upon him by Jose Mourinho after proving his tactical prowess and man-management skills during Leicester’s stunning title triumph.
When it was revealed that former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola had shown his players a video montage featuring scenes from ‘Gladiator’ ahead of their victorious 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United, it was viewed as further evidence of the Catalan coach’s motivational genius. When it emerged that Claudio Ranieri had arranged a group screening of the Oscar-winning movie for his Roma squad before their unsuccessful Coppa Italia showdown with Inter following year, he was publicly ridiculed by Inter counterpart Jose Mourinho.
“Today, there was talk of how to motivate players,” the Portuguese said in the wake of the Nerazzurri’s 1-0 triumph at the Stadio Olimpico. “You do it every day by working with the squad, session after session. You certainly don’t do it by showing the team a film before a cup final. Players are professionals. They should not be treated like children. We preferred to work on the field and study Roma carefully to find their weak points. If before a match I made my team watch ‘Gladiator’, they’d start laughing or call the doctor asking if I was ill…
“In 2004, after coming to Chelsea and asking why Ranieri was replaced, I was told they wanted to win and it was never going to happen with him. It is really not my fault if he was considered a loser at Chelsea.”
Portraying Ranieri as a loser was horribly harsh but the perception of Ranieri as a perennial runner-up was not uncommon in Italy. The Roman had achieved some noteworthy successes during the early part of his career: he won a Coppa Italia with Fiorentina in 1996, just two years after leading the Viola out of Serie B, while there was a Copa del Rey triumph in his first stint in Spain with Valencia. However, he had come to be considered good, but not quite good enough; a likeable coach capable of earning promotion or avoiding relegation – but never masterminding a title triumph.
This was perhaps best typified by his time at hometown club Roma. His Giallorossi were top of Serie A with four games remaining in the 2009-10 season but ultimately finished two points behind Inter, as well as being beaten 1-0 by Mourinho’s treble winners in the Coppa Italia final.
They were particularly devastating defeats for Ranieri and, more importantly, his reputation.
In 2008, after Mourinho had mocked the Italian’s failure to win a top-flight title, Ranieri had countered: “I am not like him. I don’t have to win things to be sure of myself.” However, after the double-failure of 2010, Mourinho’s characteristically caustic retort now seemed unfortunately apt.
“I am very demanding of myself and I have to win to be sure of things,” the former Porto boss had stated. “This is why I have won so many trophies in my career. Ranieri, on the other hand, has the mentality of someone who doesn’t need to win. He is almost 70 years old. He has won a Super Cup and another small trophy and he is too old to change his mentality. He’s old and he hasn’t won anything.”
Given Ranieri also failed to lift a trophy during spells at Juventus and Inter – two of the three traditional superpowers of Serie A – either side of his stint at the Stadio Olimpico, his reputation as a specialist in failure had been well and truly set in stone by the time he was, almost inevitably, sacked by the Nerazzurri in 2012.
He received some credit by leading Monaco back into Ligue 1 in 2013 but was discarded a year later, while his subsequent, ill-fated spell in charge of Greece led to eight months of unemployment. At that point, many felt like Mourinho: that Ranieri was too old and out of touch with the modern game. Indeed, Foxes legend Gary Lineker typified the sense of disbelief and disappointment of many Leicester fans when he responded to the news of the Italian’s appointment last July with the Tweet:
Claudio Ranieri? Really?
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) July 13, 2015
Yet at the King Power Stadium everything clicked. It would be wrong, though, to say that everything fell into place right away for Ranieri. He almost immediately had to deal with a race row involving Jamie Vardy, who had verbally abused a man of Asian extraction during a night out at a casino. Ranieri handled the situation sensitively but masterfully, ensuring that the incident had created no bad blood between Vardy and fellow forward Shinji Okazaki. On the contrary, in the opening weeks of the season, a squad that could have divided only became more united.
Ranieri’s man-management proved key. The unorthodox motivational techniques once derided by Mourinho worked wonders in the East Midlands. There was the promise of pizza in exchange for clean sheets and the use of an imaginary bell to wake up players that had switched off in training. Ranieri not only fostered a spirit of solidarity but also fun. Leicester were winning games but, perhaps more importantly, enjoying themselves.
A team that had been battling relegation in April were playing like champions by Christmas. Confidence was everything.
Ranieri had instilled the squad with the utmost belief in their own abilities. At the start of the season, he backed Vardy for a place in the England squad at Euro 2016 and talked up N’Golo Kante as one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe. Both men vindicated his faith with sensational campaigns but while he coaxed remarkable performances out of individual talents, such as Player of the Season Riyad Mahrez, he made everything about the collective, fostering a collective belief that they belonged at the highest level. Indeed, while Leicester were top of the table, everyone else was looking for the reasons why; Ranieri was literally asking, ‘Why not?’.
“I remember when nobody wanted to go to Napoli,” the former Partenopei coach mused. “But after [Diego] Maradona, everyone wanted to go to Napoli. If we start to build, maybe in three or four years a lot of players will want to come to Leicester. Why not?”
Ranieri’s players were rubbishing reputations and dispelling the notion that only money buys success in football.
In February, Leicester had returned to the top of the table with a stunning 3-1 victory over Manchester City, with Robert Huth, a £3 million (€3.8m) signing from Stoke, and Mahrez, a £400,000 (€513,000) acquisition from Le Havre, netting the goals that embarrassed a team put together at a cost of £233m (€300m). By contrast, the victors’ starting line-up at the Etihad that day was worth a grand total of £21.9m (€28m) – making them less expensive than six individuals in the City side. Over the last five years, Leicester are the 17th highest spending club from this season’s 20 Premier League teams.
Such logic-defying success seemed unsustainable but even when the pressure was eventually applied by the press, Ranieri simply swatted it aside, pointing out that it was the Foxes’ title rivals who were feeling the heat given the vast disparity in resources.
And so it proved. In the finishing straight, it was Arsenal, Manchester City and, lastly, Tottenham who cracked up; Leicester just kept on winning games. The collective bond between the players and their manager, just like their resistance to the natural order of things, would not be broken.
“An ideal coach for certain types of teams,” as coaching legend Arrigo Sacchi stated. “His is a football made of motivation and emotion; his players would give their lives for him.”
Ranieri didn’t just win over his players or coaching compatriots such as Sacchi, either. When he faced off against then Chelsea boss Mourinho in December, the three-time Champions League winner revealed how he had long since mended his relationship with his former foe, insisting, “I always had respect for the man.”
This most remarkable of title triumphs, though, means that Mourinho, and everyone else in the footballing world no longer respects only Ranieri the man, but also Ranieri the coach. Mourinho had claimed that Ranieri was too set in his ways, yet ‘The Tinkerman’ has learned the benefits of a calmer, more measured tactical approach. He has never stopped evolving. After his humiliating sacking by Greece, Ranieri visited Borussia Dortmund’s training camp in La Manga to analyse the work of then-coach Jurgen Klopp first hand. “Even at my age, I still want to learn all the time,” he explained.
Now others will be looking to learn from him. Indeed, Ranieri also attended some Bayern Munich training sessions during his spell out of work. Perhaps even the great Guardiola would now be keen to know how one goes about turning relegation battlers into champions – something that he has never done before.
Ranieri thus deserves all the plaudits coming his way. He has evolved tactically but never changed his personality. He refused to become disillusioned or embittered by all of the criticism and disappointment he has endured throughout his career and continued to conduct himself with humility and dignity.
He has shown that nice guys do not always finish last, or as runners-up, for that matter. He has never been a loser but now he is a proven winner. And not thanks to money or fortune, but strength and honour. Like a true gladiator.
Culled from Goal.com