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Ranieri Returns: Can he save Fulham?

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Are Fulham the right club for Claudio Ranieri?

When it was announced this morning that Slavisa Jokanovic had been relieved of his duties at Fulham, not too many eyebrows will have been raised, such is the current climate of modern football.

Less than six months after taking Fulham to the Premier League via a play-off final victory over Aston Villa, Jokanovic has been let go after starting the season with just one win in 12 games, a return which leaves them sat 20th in the table. The 1-0 defeat away to Huddersfield appeared to put the penultimate nail in his coffin, before the defeat to Liverpool ended any last ditch attempt of rescuing his job.

What was surprising about the decision, however, is the fact that Fulham already had a replacement lined up in the shape of Claudio Ranieri. The Italian ironically replaces the man who was his first signing at Chelsea and makes his first return to the Premier League since his controversial sacking by Leicester City in 2017.

He will forever be associated with the Foxes, having guided them to the Premier League title in the 2015/16 campaign in what is considered by most to be the most remarkable achievement of the modern era in English football. Many would’ve called it a day then, but he now makes his return to the league with a club who are in a far different position to when he took over at the King Power Stadium.

Ranieri took over a Leicester team that were riding the crest of a wave, having won seven of their previous nine games the previous season to escape relegation, with their only defeat in that time coming to champions Chelsea. He didn't need to change much - a huge contrast from the job that needs doing at Fulham. This time around, he takes over a team that have lost seven in a row in all competitions and have conceded 20 goals during that spell.

Slavisa Jokanovic Fulham

Choosing a best XI

Defensively, they are an absolute shambles and Ranieri also doesn’t have the luxury of being able to dip into the transfer market like he did in his first summer with Leicester. Until January, these are the tools he has to work with and chairman Shahid Khan will want him to make full use of them, having spent over £100m during the previous transfer window.

With that, you would assume there is plenty of talent in the squad and there are certainly things to work with at Craven Cottage. Aleksandar Mitrovic and Andre Schurrle have had good individual starts to the campaign, having netted five and four goals in the Premier League each respectively.

Jean Michel Seri was being scouted by the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal before eventually ending up at Craven Cottage in the summer. Captain Tom Cairney is a class act in midfield, while Alfie Mawson isn’t nearly as poor as what he’s proved to be early on at Fulham. One of Jokanovic’s issues was not knowing what his best XI was, having been torn between the new recruits and those who helped them get into the top flight last season.

Ranieri enters with a clean slate and no loyalties to anybody, with this first week or so of training likely to be key in him assessing the quality of the team. During the title winning season at Leicester, the 67-year-old juxtaposed his reputation as the ‘tinker man’ by playing a settled XI most weeks, though he is inheriting a much bigger squad than he did in 2015.

Tom Cairney Fulham

Creating a bond

The main thing he has to address right away is their defensive issues. Already conceding 31 goals in just 12 matches, if they continue to ship goals at such a rate then relegation is an absolute certainty. During the famous title-winning season with Leicester, Ranieri made stars of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, although defensively it took them some time to adjust to the Italian.

Ranieri famously offered pizza as a reward to his players for keeping their first clean sheet of that season, which eventually came 10 games into the campaign, though they did go on to keep 15 clean sheets in 38 matches. From that standpoint, it seems unlikely that he will have the regimented impact of a Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis.

At Leicester they didn’t play the attractive football that Jokanovic endorsed in the Championship, often sitting back deep and playing on the counter-attack, with Jamie Vardy’s pace being utilised by direct passes into space. However, Ranieri will look to restore enjoyment of the game and create a camaraderie amongst a group of players who often look like strangers that have been thrown together with no real plan or design behind it.

It’s a bold appointment from Fulham and a bold decision from Ranieri to take the reigns at Craven Cottage. It’s ultimately a risk on both sides, but one that could pay huge dividends if it the styles can mesh together.

Claudio Ranieri Fulham