The Weekend Review: Ranieri’s ‘Magic’ Touch

Last week we talked about Managers at the top level of the game in Britain who were, or appeared to be, pretty normal guys, or certainly did not give off any airs of superiority or have that, what for others appears a de rigeur need to engage in complete psycho babble post-match. Some of the younger or newer breed are refreshingly different in that respect and while there is a preponderance of coaching imports who appear as down to earth as they are talented – Pochettino, Sanchez Flores, Koeman – let us recognise the standards being set by domestic talents like Eddie Howe and Alex Neil.

What distinguishes most of these people is primarily a non moan default position in interviews where unless they have real cause to blame officialdom; disappointment tends to be dealt with in a matter of fact way. Success is attributed to the players, to the dressing room, to the club (even, on occasion, the owners – imagine!) and generally praise that is offered is taken with what appears to be that sense of humility – real or imaginary – some of the greatest people in sport have perfected. Federer must have a huge and powerful ego, so too Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis-Hill because you cannot achieve greatness as they have all done without one, but what is striking about them is how they deal with their successes and their, albeit rare, failures. There is emerging among younger managers a less intense or at least what appears to be a more considered and balanced approach to the trappings of the work they do.

In the midst of this stands the, for now at least, master of all he surveys one 64 year-old Claudio Ranieri, once mocked by people in the game in England but who now is on the verge of leading what would be the greatest ever achievement in the modern game in Britain. Someone asked me how central or otherwise I thought he was to what Leicester has achieved this season? There is no disputing that he is critical to it. There should be no diminution of what he has done with the Foxes because, between his general football savvy, his tactical appreciation and, perhaps most importantly, his ability to instill a distinctive culture around his players, that not only does the club stand on the cusp of smashing the accepted paradigm but Claudio Ranieri is within touching distance of true greatness.

What has he done with his senior squad? The modern fascination with data will reveal much of what the different players bring to the team, the balance of its offensive and defensive strengths. There will be attention paid to stats about fitness, when goals are scored and how resilient the side has been when under pressure in particular matches. The doubters and those involved in bigger clubs who see, at the very least, their European lunch being stolen by the upstarts who seem to have, for now at least, forgotten their proper place at the other end of the table, will point to a relatively injury free journey through the season thus far. None of this explains anything. Not completely in any event.

Ranieri has a magic formula. Just like Col Sanders or those few entrusted with the recipe for Coca-Cola, the reality is that, while all the above are factors in what Leicester has achieved, the key ingredient is something we will never, can never understand. We can speculate. The man’s inherent sense of confidence in who he is was evident in how he handled himself at Chelsea. Claudio Ranieri was not disposed to licking the boots of his players, nor was he prepared to behave in the manner that the ownership of the club would have wanted where that sense of superiority of the rich London club – and its fans – demanded instant gratification. It was a job he was ill fitted for and someone in Leicester copped that, realised that when they met and interviewed this man that he was someone who could build an ethic and a culture around a group of fabulously talented – but not yet superstar – players that would allow them to thrive. Look at the ordinariness of his own career as a player.

So it is that when we see him smiling and joking at press conferences, or dealing with post match interviews in a magnanimous and consistently gracious and self deprecating manner he is giving us insights into the culture he has nurtured around his squad and which, because like him it comprises strong minded, balanced and hardworking talented players, has responded by playing football with passion and with joy, unafraid of the consequences at the end of each 90 minutes. What he has instilled in them he has reinforced by his own approach and so when, in recent weeks, games and points have appeared to be slipping away he has replaced defenders with attackers and shown the men on the field that football matches are to be played to win. Let us hope for the game that Leicester and their quite exceptional – if not so young – manager get the reward they deserve.