King Claudio: The subtle transformation of Ranieri, “The Thinkerman”

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“Never could I have imagined this. We work so hard. Everyone does, but only one can win. This year it happened to me! It’s my karma. I’ve fought so hard to achieve so this is special. I want to thank my players, chairman, staff and fans. Our Chairman gives to us calmness and positivity. Never have I seen him nervous. That is important to me.

“To the fans. They were dreaming. I say dilly-ding, dilly-dong, they woke up and the dream was a reality.”

[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ] 

On Thursday Claudio Ranieri was reflecting on Leicester City’s top-flight title win, the first in their 132-year history, as he sipped champagne with the media after being applauded into the room. He oozed class, composure and humility.

If anybody deserves this kind of respect, admiration and a glorious coronation, it’s Ranieri.

The 64-year-old Italian coach has become the central figure in this remarkable fairy tale and on Saturday he will lift a top-flight trophy for the first time in his journeyman career which has seen him manage 15 clubs and the Greek national team over the past 28 years.

[ MORE: Mahrez to leave?

Slowly and very surely his transformation into a title-winning manager is complete. His persona, off the pitch, hasn’t changed much but there have been tweaks, and after Leicester’s triumph his life will never quite be the same again as calls for him to be Knighted by the Queen of England and many other accolades continue.

A charming, modest, quiet man from the San Saba neighborhood in the heart of Rome, Ranieri grew up close to the Circus Maximus and has never forgotten his roots. The butcher’s son flew home to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother on the day Leicester were crowned champions of the Premier League.

He has stayed true to himself but over time his personality has transformed subtly. Perhaps disappointments along the way have altered his outlook, sharpened his focus and taught him the keys to success. It seems like his entire career has been building to this moment.

[ MORE: What does winning the PL really mean for Leicester? ]

Ranieri’s persona as a loveable grandfather figure is one which slightly contrasts his past image when he was in charge at Chelsea from 2000-04. Those who knew Ranieri during his time in charge at Chelsea speak of him as a gentleman and a humble, quiet man, but one who sometimes seemed confused and easily flustered. It didn’t help that he didn’t speak English when he first arrived in England 16 years ago and the translator Chelsea handed to him hardly gave Ranieri’s comments the character we know now he has.

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Leicester City's manager Claudio Ranieri congratulates Jamie Vardy of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle and Leicester City at St James Park on November 21, 2015 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)

Since 2004 when Ranieri left England there has been this lingering notion that yes, Ranieri was a nice man, but the puzzled look he often had on his face on the sidelines at Stamford Bridge was because he often confused himself. Nicknamed “The Tinkerman” for consistently changing his players and lineups, Ranieri has never shrugged off that tag. Until now.

He chose his first press conference (in front of the media, who he has referred to as “the sharks” all season long) since becoming a title winner to give himself a new nickname.

“I am now the Thinkerman, not Tinkerman!” Ranieri laughed

This incredible season isn’t about redemption, resurrection or re-invigoration for Ranieri. If he wasn’t handed another job after a disastrous spell in charge of the Greek national team which ended in 2014, then he probably would have been just fine.

[ MORE: How will Leicester’s success change the PL? ]

However, when the opportunity arose to return to England it was about returning to a land where he enjoyed being a manager, where he enjoyed the culture and was at ease. We’ve seen that during every press conference this season. Ranieri even refers to himself as “an English player” during his playing days and that he loves the dedication and commitment. He has coached in Italy, Spain, France, Greece and England but it seems as though Ranieri is enamored by the English culture and vice versa, and he always maintained his home in London despite not working in the country for over a decade.

Fans in Leicester have multiple songs in his honor, the local market has named a spicy Italian sausage after him and during games the connection with the supporters has been immense to help drive the Foxes over the line. Often he would raise his arms and gesticulate to the crowd for help to inspire the players in the final minutes of games. The supporters would respond, realizing they were on the edge of greatness.

Ranieri would have picked up tricks like that over the years and was it the difference in Leicester’s 14 one-goal wins this season? It certainly didn’t hurt.

“The fans understood our difficulties and they pushed a lot,” Ranieri told ProSoccerTalk after their 1-0 win over Southampton in April. “They were not nervous, they understood our momentum and they are pushing with us. It is a fantastic link. It is unbelievable. They are very, very close with us. They understand when we need support or when I asked for support… but I didn’t even ask today. They started early to help us.”

Despite all the current euphoria surrounding Ranieri and his team achieving the unthinkable, the initial reactions from Leicester’s fans to his appointment was in stark contrast. Let’s cast our minds back to July 13, 2015…

Leicester legend Gary Lineker wasn’t impressed.

Pretty much everyone believed they were doomed for relegation and in all fairness, it was a strange appointment. Leicester had hired a manager who had never been involved in a PL relegation battle, hadn’t worked in England in over a decade and had just crashed and burned with the Greek national team. Simple logic saw it as a “strange appointment” as one leading Leicester fan told me back in the summer.

What was to come was something Ranieri admitted he didn’t start believing would be a possibility until their win at Manchester City in February.

“I was so satisfied when we won at Manchester City,” Ranieri told the Guardian. “We made a fantastic performance away. Unbelievable. Maybe when we won there 3-1, maybe my players believed in something: ‘Maybe we can win, maybe we can fight until the end’. I never spoke about this to them. I said: ‘OK, clean everything, next match. Start again.’ So when I said to you [the media] we play match by match, it was true.”

Claudio Ranieri, Leicester City FC

That game-by-game battle to achieve the title when everybody thought they would slip up has gripped Leicester, England and most of the soccer, and sporting, world. Ranieri has used every ounce of his experience to ease any pressure on his players, never truly admitting they were in a title battle until the final weeks of the season. He is famous for using sdramatizzare to put his players at ease and team trips to pizza parlors after recording a shutout and waxing lyrical about local rock band Kasabian has helped Ranieri fit in and make the situation seem much more normal.

The media has hung on his every word, laughing along with his jokes and giving him gifts at press conferences. Books have been commissioned and will be written about Ranieri’s journey and released in the opening months of next season. His players also seem encapsulated by the Italian’s seamlessly never-ending stream of charm.

Ranieri has read the situation he came into at Leicester perfectly, keeping plenty of the existing backroom staff, adding a few of his own and not changing an awful lot from their incredible run of seven wins from the final nine games last season to stave off relegation and set themselves up for this magical campaign.

But don’t be fooled by all of these niceties, there is a harsh soccer coach in there. One who is deeply demanding that his players work hard and deliver.

NBC Sports analyst Graeme Le Saux played for Ranieri at Chelsea.

“That’s all veneer, don’t be fooled, that’s part design,” Le Saux said recently regarding Ranieri’s charming demeanor. “He’s a very shrewd operator and he wouldn’t shirk a big decision. Behind the smile there’s a ruthless football manager, a guy who is happy to make big decisions.

“At Leicester he hasn’t had to, the team picks itself. He’s not had to deal with dropping big names and moving people on. Once he’s established his team and his shape, he’s been the polar opposite to what we were calling him, the Tinkerman.”

Even though Leicester will be in the Champions League next season, Ranieri has already said he doesn’t want big name players to arrive and for the Foxes to get away from who they really are.

“I don’t want big names,” Ranieri said. “I don’t want it in my dressing room. My lads are special. Who arrives must have the same spirit.”

It turns out he’s used the “dilly-ding, dilly-dong” tactics throughout his career to keep his players focused and despite his penchant for squad rotation, this season he’s kept a settled team in a solid 4-4-2 formation. He has used just 23 different players this season, fewer than any other PL club, and although it may have been out of necessity rather than design Ranieri didn’t tinker and look what happened. That Tinkerman tag has finally fallen off.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

He’s shaken off another tag as “the nearly man” too. He was a top-flight runner up with Chelsea in 2003, AS Roma in 2010 and AS Monaco in 2014. Any lingering doubts people had about Ranieri’s ability to get the job done and not confuse himself along the way are over. His journey really started with little Cagilari in 1987 who he took from Serie C to the Serie A. He won cups in Spain with Valencia and Fiorentina in Italy as he took La Viola to Serie A where they became a force. He has had some incredible moments during his long, winding managerial career but this is the best. This is the icing on the cake and perhaps a sizable cherry on top too.

His transformation from Tinkerman to Thinkerman is complete and it is rather fitting that on the final day of the season he will return to Chelsea, last seasons champions, and receive a guard of honor onto the pitch, replicating what occurred when he last stood on the turf of Chelsea’s home stadium.

“I am satisfied, of course, but not in terms of ‘it is revenge’. No, no, no. I am not a man who wants revenge,” Ranieri said. “I know my job very well and sometimes maybe the owner wants to change you because you don’t fit in with him. It is good because last time I left the Premier League (in 2004) I went through my players and they made the guard of honor. It was amazing. Now I will come back in the same way. It is unbelievable.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 19: Claudio Ranieri Manager of Leicester City looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Leicester City at Selhurst Park on March 19, 2016 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

What has been unbelievable is this season. Ranieri and his players have become immortal, they’ve sealed their place in soccer folklore forever and even if they crash and burn next season in the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League, they will always have the memories from the 2015-16 campaign when they ruled England.

Stood in his tracksuit by the side of the training pitch, the Roman looked annoyed when asked by one journalist the day after Leicester had won the title if he could quite believe what they’d done. He spoke of his ambition to always win a top league and even now, despite the evolution of his personality into a calm, calculated and humorous individual, there was still a glimpse that he could become a little flustered and slip into his old ways, momentarily.

What could possibly be on the horizon for Ranieri? The charming, humble manager from the Italian capital wants a little more, even if he’s currently savoring the moment.

“This is a moment when you have to leave a little more time and taste slowly, like a good wine, and savor it,” Ranieri said, speaking to the Guardian. “Maybe now is too early to think what we have done. Maybe one or two years could be better to understand but now it is important to stay high in the world.

“I am very happy to win because when you start to make a manager you hope you can win some league. I won the most important league in Europe, I think, not just Europe but the world, the Premier League. It is a fantastic achievement, my career is fantastic but I want to achieve a little more if it is possible.”

Pulisic Watch: Goal, hamstring injury in FA Cup final

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Christian Pulisic had both a dream and nightmare outing in the FA Cup final, as he became the first USMNT player in history to score in the FA Cup final but looked to have severely injured his hamstring.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Pulisic, 21, scored a superb opener at Wembley as he dazzled for Chelsea early on but right at the start of the second half he raced clear of the Arsenal defense, again, but appeared to injure his right hamstring badly before he took a shot.

Injury update, latest news on Pulisic

Frank Lampard gave a Pulisic injury update after the game and said that the USMNT star would not be fit to play in their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg game at Bayern Munich next Saturday. Lampard also confirmed that Pulisic will have a scan on his injured hamstring to determine the severity of the damage.

Here’s a close look at a superb display for Pulisic which ended in injury.


2nd minute: Found on the ball and plays it back to Rudiger. Chelsea looking to play the ball direct early on.

7th minute: GOALLL! Finds Giroud centrally, then surges forward and finds Mount on the left.  A cross from Mount is flicked to Pulisic by Giroud and he dinks home over Emiliano Martinez. Pulisic becomes the first USMNT player in history to score in an FA Cup final.

9th minute: Man, is he up for this. Pulisic puts Bellerin under pressure and wins the ball back for Chelsea.

11th minute: Lovely feet from Pulisic as he ran past two Arsenal defenders and at another two, before hitting a shot right at Emiliano Martinez.

14th minute: A nice flick to Giroud who didn’t quite read it. Lovely creativity.

20th minute: Picks up the ball on the left and is calm and composed on the ball. Always looking to drift inside.

31st minute: Cuts in from the right and flies past two players but Alonso fouls and the attack is over. Chelsea struggling after Arsenal’s equalizer.

38th minute: Found by Kovacic and plays it wide as Chelsea try and possess the ball after losing captain Azpilcueta to injury, who had given away the penalty kick Arsenal equalized from.

41st minute: Almost gets away but Arsenal stop him. A real nuisance.

45th minute: Tackled by Kieran Tierney, as Arsenal win a free kick right on the edge of the box but it is flashed wide.

47th minute: Right at the start of the second half he accelerates towards goal and is away from the Arsenal defense, but he pulls up in agony with a right hamstring injury before getting a shot away which is just wide. Somehow he still had a shot despite being in agony.

48th minute: Pulisic is in agony as he is helped off the pitch and Pedro replaces him. A dream start to the FA Cup final ends in agony for the American. Chelsea and USMNT fans everywhere will be waiting anxiously to hear the latest Pulisic injury update.

UPDATE: Pulisic went straight down the tunnel and was seen late in the second half as the other Chelsea players sat in the stand and watched their team.

Ranking new Premier League kits for 2020-21

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Premier League kit rankings are absolutely one of our favorite things to do each summer.

New kits have been dropped by plenty of Premier League clubs ahead of the new 2020-21 season, with fresh looks galore.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Some teams have kept it simple, while others have gone for something very different.

With big name kit suppliers arriving on new deals at clubs, there will be some very different looks for next season and beyond.

Check out our 2020-21 Premier League kit rankings from the shirts released, so far.


1 – Sheffield United: Absolutely stunning design. Simple and striking at the same time. Love it.

2 – Southampton: Classy retro kits to celebrate their 135th anniversary, as Saints return to their original look.

Southampton

3 – Aston Villa: Clean, sharp look and you can’t go wrong with claret and blue. Love the larger badge too.

 

4 – Arsenal: Loving the retro vibes and yet another fine Arsenal kit.

 

5 – Brighton: Gone for an all blue number with white pinstripes. This is very good and a big chance from the bigger blue and white stripes. Retro, again.

6 – Tottenham Hotspur: Very sleek look and Spurs have kit it simple. Like the away kit, a lot.

7 – Manchester United: Nice little design throughout the kit which adds something extra.

8 – Liverpool: New Nike kits for the first time in history. The teal trim looks smart. Kept it simple and safe.

9 – Wolves: Another team which has gone for the retro look and it works.

10 – West Brom: The barcode stripes are slightly jarring but the colors, badge and design are good.

11 – Man City: A little too much going on with the home and away kits.

12 – West Ham: The Hammers are celebrating their 125th anniversary in style. Very nice. Classic look with a massive badge. Maybe a bit too plain?

13 – Chelsea: The new sponsor logo and the size of it has been ridiculed and it does ruin the very snazzy looking kits.

14 – Similar look for Leicester and this is a nice design. Big fan of the sleeves.

15 – Everton: Hummel are underrated and this has a nice retro look to it.

16 – Newcastle United: Does what it says on the tin. Black and white stripes, and that’s it.

Alexis Sanchez close to permanent Inter move; Ceballos update

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Alexis Sanchez is close to a permanent move to Inter Milan and there’s an interesting update on Dani Ceballos heading to Arsenal on a permanent basis.

[ MORE: Bundesliga plan for fans’ return ]

Starting in Milan, several reports claim that Alexis Sanchez is finally leaving Manchester United and will sign for Inter permanently on a free transfer. Other reports claim that Inter are paying a $17.6 million transfer fee for Sanchez, who still has two years left on his current Man United contract of $730,000 per week.

Sanchez’s departure will allow Man United to wrap up the $140 million signing of Jadon Sancho, with Sanchez’s huge salary finally off their wage bill as they’ve been paying a big chunk of his wages since last summer when he joined Inter on a season-long loan.

As for the details of the permanent deal, our partners in the UK at Sky Sports have some more details.

“The Chile international would receive a payout from United for cancelling his contract, which still has two years to run. The details of the payout are unknown but the value of the remaining two years in wages is around £55m. Sanchez is set to sign a three-year contract with Inter worth £6.3m a year. A deal should be finalised this week and would mean Sanchez is eligible to play for Inter in this season’s Europa League competition.” 

Alexis Sanchez, 31, has been in good form for Inter Milan since the restart (three goals and seven assists says as much) as he finally seems to have shaken off injuries. In 18 months at Man United the Chilean star struggled to make an impact after joining in January 2018 as part of a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan as he left Arsenal after a lengthy contract saga.

Ceballos to Arsenal
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As for another player who could be joining his loan club permanently, there is an intriguing update from Real Madrid and Spain midfielder Dani Ceballos.

Ceballos, 23, starred on loan at Arsenal and helped Mikel Arteta’s side win the FA Cup as he put in a man of the match performance in a new deeper role in central midfield.

The Spaniard has been instrumental so far during Arteta’s rebuild of the Gunners and although the Arsenal boss is keen for the club to work out a deal to extend the loan of Ceballos, or even try and sign him permanently, it appears the silky midfielder may not be so keen on staying in London.

Speaking to Spanish outlet El Partidazo de COPE, here’s what Ceballos said about his future as he will chat with Real after their Champions League Round of 16 clash with Man City later this week.

“I haven’t spoken to Real Madrid yet, but anyone who wears that shirt is happy,” Ceballos said. “Madrid are better than any club in the world. We’ll see about my future. I’m not thinking about whether or not I can play for Real Madrid, Arsenal or another club. Now it’s time to disconnect. I have to be calm and think clearly with my family about the coming year.”

Ceballos has also stated his love for his boyhood club, Real Betis, as he could end up back in Spain but not at Real Madrid.

Arsenal and Arteta want Ceballos to remain at the Emirates, badly, and they must do all they can to bring him back to north London for the 2020-21 season. His partnership with Granit Xhaka in the two deeper central midfield roles was a big surprise as they added stability, vision and composure to the engine room.

Bundesliga agree on plan for fans to return when government allows

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The Bundesliga has agreed on a plan for fans to return to stadiums, but only if the government gives them the green light later this month.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

In a meeting of clubs from the top two tiers of German soccer on Tuesday, clubs voted in favor of allowing some fans back into stadiums when the 2020-21 season starts on Sept. 18, with German Cup games scheduled for the week before that.

Germany has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic particularly well but there are concerns about a second wave after a rise in infections in recent weeks.

The parameters for how Bundesliga fans would be able to return to each stadium, and the protocol for pulling it off safely, is generally as follows:

  • No visiting fans until the end of 2020
  • No alcohol sold in stadiums until at least Oct. 31
  • No standing in stadiums until at least Oct. 31
  • Contact info and ID data to be collected for all fans inside the stadium

Now it is all about the meeting next week between the health ministers of each region of Germany, as they will have the final say on whether or not some fans can return to stadiums.

The Bundesliga was the first of Europe’s top five leagues to return to play, as they restarted the season in May amid the coronavirus pandemic. The protocols the Bundesliga put into place set the framework for leagues in England, Spain and Italy to resume action later in the summer.

Speaking in a news conference German Football League (DFL) CEO Christian Seifert had the following to say on the matter via Yahoo.

“If and when fans will return to the stadiums is not a decision for the DFL but for the political leaders,” Seifert said. “The DFL does not expect or demand anything but we are preparing to take this small step (with fans in stadiums) when the time comes. Priority is not full stadiums but the health situation. We should not take unnecessary risks but we should also not capitulate and just expect it to go away.”

“No one at the DFL will demand a specific number of fans. That would be irresponsible. Professional football can only come back in steps. There is no magic switch for politicians to give the green light for full stadiums. That will happen in steps. We will have to reclaim normality in small steps.”

The soccer and sporting world will have all eyes on Germany to see if this plan is approved and how things go from mid-September onwards.