Claudio Ranieri has steel behind the smile to thrive under Watford’s ruthless regime

The Italian manager will have to be at his sharpest to survive for long at Watford but he is much tougher than he looks, and will present an immediate test for Jurgen Klopp’s high-flying Liverpool this weekend

Tony Evans
Friday 15 October 2021 14:34
<p>Claudio Ranieri is the new man at Watford</p>

Claudio Ranieri is the new man at Watford

Claudio Ranieri pulled off one of the great feats of the past 20 years when he led Leicester City to the Premier League title. Five clubs and half a decade on, he begins a new phase in his career when Watford face Liverpool at Vicarage Road on Saturday.

This seems an odd marriage. Ranieri turns 70 next week and has a peripatetic history – this is his 22nd job in management. Watford have parted company with eight managers since Leicester sealed their Premier League win. It is not hard to conceive that the Italian will no longer be in control in Hertfordshire in May. At Watford, the beginning of the end starts right at the beginning.

Aside from Pep Guardiola, Ranieri and Jurgen Klopp are the only two managers in the top flight who can boast about winning the league in England. Ranieri was sacked by Leicester nine months after the club’s greatest success. One day they will build a statue at Anfield to Klopp. The German’s legacy is secure. Ranieri’s is forever fated to be seen as avuncular but slightly lightweight, an image likely to be endorsed by this spell at Watford.

He does not seem the right fit for Vicarage Road but the same thing could have been said of Leicester. After inheriting a team that won the Championship, Ranieri attempted to change the style and shape of the side. He was persuaded by the players to revert to the methods that they believed suited them. It worked beautifully.

This was not a sign of weakness. Ranieri is much tougher than he looks. For all his smiling charm, he should not be underestimated. There is steel behind his seemingly light touch.

Adaptability was the key to making things work at Leicester. He will need to be flexible at Watford. He can have no thoughts of playing silky football, no matter what he says to the public. His latest role is about digging out results, recognising the team’s strengths and making the most of them.

The last time Liverpool visited Vicarage Road was in the tense prelude to lockdown amid the growing pandemic. The champions-in-waiting were swept aside 3-0 by a physical, rambunctious Watford. In the second half the home side bullied the visiting team. That game ended an 18-game winning run in the Premier League and put a halt to one of the most sublime spells of football produced by a Liverpool side – or any other, for that matter. The tide seemed to turn against Klopp that day.

Claudio Ranieri has taken over from Xisco Munoz at Watford

What sets the two managers apart is their reactions – not to adversity, but to triumph. Both Klopp and Ranieri created landmark moments. Clubs like Leicester are not supposed to win titles in the modern age. Liverpool had gone three decades without ending the season atop the league. These accomplishments created a groundswell of joy in the respective cities.

One of the hardest challenges in the game is to maintain a winning mentality. The first success is never easy but the next season is fraught with even more pitfalls. Opponents up their game. The action on the pitch is only part of the issue, though. Dealing with praise and adulation is almost as difficult as dealing with failure. It can disrupt focus.

Leicester lost their way in their defence of the title and Ranieri, even more than his squad, basked in the afterglow of the previous campaign. That cost him his job.

Klopp, because of his experience winning the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, brooked no distractions. Last season did not go as well as Liverpool had hoped – injuries hurt them and rivals had begun to work out their strategy – but no blame could be attached to a disruption of concentration caused by the fallout from winning the league. It is easy to lose your edge and Ranieri did at Leicester.

The Italian will have to be at his sharpest to survive for long at Watford but Klopp will expect a battle. Liverpool have regained some of their pre-pandemic swagger and will look to erase the memories of their last visit to Vicarage Road. Ranieri will not be an easy touch. He has won as many Premier League titles as his Anfield counterpart and will be eager to prove himself again.

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