Claudio Ranieri is still struggling to comprehend how he managed to transform Leicester City F.C. from 5,000-1 outsiders to English Premier League champions.
”You have to leave a little more (time) and taste slowly, slowly like a good wine. Savor it,” Ranieri said. ”Maybe now is too early to think what we have done. Maybe in one or two years it could be better to understand.”
But for a half hour Tuesday, the genial manager did set out in detail the blueprint behind this improbable path to glory.
Highlighting the team ethic, there is little self-aggrandizement from the 64-year-old Italian who has broken up the established order of English football.
This is the methodology.
The first obstacle at Leicester was winning over the doubters after his surprise hiring in July.
”Claudio Ranieri? Really?” tweeted former Leicester striker Gary Lineker.
Leicester had only just survived a scrape with relegation and yet gambled by replacing the fired Nigel Pearson with a manager who was humiliatingly dismissed from his previous job with Greece after losing to the Faeroe Islands.
”What can you do when you train three days before a match?” Ranieri recalled of his ill-fated, short spell as a national team coach. ”I have to get into the brain of the players slowly to understand, to bring them the same philosophy and go together.”
At Leicester he would have time to achieve just that in his second stint in the Premier League. Ranieri lost his job at Chelsea after failing to deliver the Premier League title 12 years earlier, but just avoiding relegation was the Leicester objective.
On a pre-season trip to Austria, Ranieri gained the first lengthy insight into a team that won six out of its last eight games under Pearson to stay in the Premier League.
”I said to them … `It is difficult to understand 25 people. It is important you understand only me. If we link very well we can do something good,”’ Ranieri recalled.
Still, there were concerns about Ranieri’s plans, including fears there would be two training sessions a day.
”Don’t worry, I want to continue with your style and I will add my knowledge,” Ranieri recalled telling the squad. ”Then I will change slowly with my ideas.”
Ranieri decided in pre-season that a 4-4-2 formation best suited the team better than Pearson’s 3-4-1-2.
”Because a lot of teams play with 4-3-3 if you play three at the back you end up with three against one and I don’t like that so much,” Ranieri said.
While having the poor possession statistics, the speed of Leicester on the break has unsettled opponents.
”I watched (winger Riyad) Mahrez during last season and every time he made a difference he was on the right side and he cut inside,” Ranieri said. ”Then I knew very well (Marc) Albrighton could make a lot of crosses on the right but I had to choose between him and Albrighton. Then I changed and I put Albrighton on the left and Riyad Mahrez on the right so they can come inside.”
Speed on the counterattack was another asset, he said.
”So I told them we are like the RAF (Royal Air Force). We are so fast and they believed in this … when we were losing 2-0, (drawing) 2-2 … man that generates a lot of enthusiasm and confidence (to win) and everything started to go better and better and better.”
The importance of a unified club was highlighted last year when Chelsea blamed ”palpable discord with the players” when Jose Mourinho was fired.
Ranieri lauds the ”humility” in the Leicester dressing room that saw hard-working, previously unheralded players lead the title charge.
”They help each other in the bad moments – they play with the heart and soul, they play as 11,” Ranieri said.
In public, Ranieri only spoke about the possibility of winning the title in the final weeks. Initially the target was 40 points and, once survival was easily guaranteed, Ranieri would rebuff title talk by just prioritizing European qualification.
Now Ranieri discloses that after the leaders won 3-1 at Manchester City in February the team realized collecting the title was feasible, even as critics expected them to collapse.
”My players believed in something. Maybe we can win, maybe we can fight until the end,” he said. ”Because I never, never spoke about this (publicly) I said, `OK, clean everything, next match. Start again.”’
COMPOSED ON THE TOUCHLINE
Ranieri tried to remain calm to avoid unsettling his team on the field.
”I know if I get crazy I transmit the nerves,” Ranieri said. ”Inside me there are two persons. One is a very aggressive, I want to win … I am never satisfied.
”Another says `Claudio, how many managers are there in the world? Too many.’ Not everyone can be Sir Alex Ferguson, (Fabio) Capello, (Carlo) Ancelotti – you are doing a very good career.”
This is the first time Ranieri has won a top-flight title.
”I came from non-league, from amateur football, and when I arrived at Cagliari, in the third division, and we got to Serie A, that was my first fairytale,” Ranieri said.