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.”

Americans Abroad: Chandler, Gooch score; Reyna, Vassilev debut

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The bar for the best weekend for Americans abroad in 2020 has been set.

After months with the under-19 side, 18-year-old Giovanni Reyna made his debut with Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. In England, Indiana Vassilev, 18, did exactly the same for Aston Villa, becoming the second youngest American to play in the Premier League.

Established Americans abroad like Timothy Chandler scored Eintracht Frankfurt’s match winner, while Lynden Gooch struck from distance for Sunderland in England’s League One.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — The USMNT star continues to recover from an abductor injury.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin is also recovering from an injury, and did not dress for Newcastle on Saturday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa – The 18-year-old came off the bench and played 23 minutes in his Premier League debut for Aston Villa. Villa drew 1-1 with Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes played 90 minutes in Derby’s 1-0 win over Hull City on Saturday.

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic — Robinson started and played 90 minutes in Wigan’s 2-1 loss to Swansea City on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old dressed but didn’t feature in Reading’s 2-0 loss to Millwall.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The Tigers’ defender started and played for Hull.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender played 90 minutes in QPR’s 1-0 victory ver Leeds United on Saturday.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — Weah and Lille were inactive this weekend.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu and Rennes were inactive this weekend. 

Eredivisie

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — Wright came off the bench and played five minutes in Venlo’s 1-1 draw with PSV.

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest dressed but didn’t feature for Ajax over the weekend. It’s been an on-and-off cycle for the fullback in Holland’s top-flight.

Desevio Payne, FC Emmen — The U-23 MNT fullback is injured and didn’t feature for FC Emmen.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt — The fullback played 90 minutes and scored Frankfurt’s match-winning goal on Saturday against Hoffenheim. 

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams started and played 86 minutes in Leipzig’s 3-1 win over Union Berlin. The midfielder completed 84 percent of his passes.

Weston McKennie, Schalke — McKennie is still having some setbacks from his shoulder injury. The midfielder didn’t dress for Schalke due to fitness issues over the weekend.

Zack Steffen, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is inactive with an injury.

Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf Morales started and played 71 minutes in Fortuna’s 1-0 loss to Werder Bremen.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  The 19-year-old started and played 86 minutes on Saturday. It’s refreshing to see Sargent back on the field, getting regular playing time after the injury.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson was on Mönchengladbach’s bench but didn’t play.

Honorable Mentions

Lynden Gooch, Sunderland — Gooch has been superlative for Sunderland lately, and on Saturday, he was rewarded with this match-deciding goal:

Ian Harkes, Dundee United — Harkes continues to grind it out in Scotland. On Sunday, he registered an assist in Dundee United’s 2-2 draw with Hibernian. 

Mexicans Abroad: Jimenez makes Wolves history; Guardado assists in Betis win

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On what was perhaps Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s last weekend in Europe, Raul Jimenez made it clear that he is ready to carry on the mantle as Mexico’s marquee striker in the old continent.

The 28-year-old’s double made him Wolverhampton Wanderer’s Premier League all-time leading goalscorer, surpassing Steven Fletcher‘s record of 22 goals in just 61 appearances.

Meanwhile in Spain, Andres Guardado continues to add remarkable chapters to his never-ending European photo book, recording an assist in Real Betis’ 3-0 thumping of Real Sociedad.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Not only did Jimenez boost his league goalscoring tally to the double digits on Saturday, but he also became Wolves’ Premier League all-time goalscorer. The Mexican is indispensable for the Midlands side – well worth the club-record $33-million investment.

La Liga

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Sevilla — Chicharito did not make the trip with Sevilla to the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday. On Friday, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl reported that Los Angeles Galaxy have signed the 31-year-old. An official announcement from the MLS side is expected in the coming days.

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid — Herrera started and played 43 minutes in Los Colchoneros’ rare, 2-0 loss to Eibar on Saturday. Atletico are now eight points behind leaders Barcelona and second-best Real Madrid.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado played all 90 minutes and recorded an assist in Betis’ trashing of Real Sociedad. The midfielder also earned a yellow card in the 23rd minute.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old dressed but remained on the bench for Betis. 

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo started and played 90 minutes in Celta’s 1-1 draw with Athletic Bilbao. The defender recorded 11 clearances, two interceptions, and earned a yellow card.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  As Napoli’s continues to suffer under Gennaro Gattuso, so does Chucky. The frenetic winger saw just 26 minutes of playing time in Napoli’s 2-0 loss to Fiorentina on Saturday. Gattuso, however, may be on his was out as reports indicated that he’s considering resigning after just 35 days at the helm.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played all 90 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 loss to Braga on Saturday. The Dragons trail league leaders Benfica by seven points.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez dressed but remained on the bench for PSV on Saturday.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — Alvarez dressed but remained on the bench for Ajax on Sunday.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea started and played 90 minutes in Zulte’s 3-0 loss to KRC Genk.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Pedro Arce, Panionios –  Panionios were inactive over the weekend.

Gerardo Ramirez Alonso, Roda JC – Ramirez Alonso and Roda JC take on Jong FC Utrecht on Monday.

Unhappy reunion for Klinsmann as Bayern beats Hertha 4-0

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BERLIN (AP) Jurgen Klinsmann endured an unhappy reunion with Bayern Munich as his former protege Thomas Muller started a 4-0 Bundesliga rout of his Hertha Berlin team.

“It was nice to see him again but of course even nicer to win,” Muller said after Sunday’s victory lifted Bayern to second place, four points behind Leipzig.

Klinsmann gave Muller the first of his so far 336 Bundesliga appearances when he brought on the then 18-year-old for the last 10 minutes of a 2-2 draw with Hamburger SV on the opening day of the 2008-09 season. Klinsmann was fired as Bayern coach in April 2009 as its title hopes faded.

But Muller has only fond memories of his mentor, who later went on to be United States coach.

“I have a special relationship with Jurgen Klinsmann. He made me a professional. I still have the mailbox message from when he called me up for the start of training with the professionals,” Muller said. “He gave me my chance to earn my spurs. He put me straight in. He was my first coach.”

Klinsmann was only cleared to face his former club on Saturday after the German soccer federation and league confirmed they received missing documents for his coaching license.

But Klinsmann, who also played for Bayern between 1995-97 and coached Germany at the 2006 World Cup, could only watch as his team was completely outplayed in the second half.

Hertha showed little initiative going forward and finally paid the price for sitting back when Muller rifled in from close range.

“The first goal opened the game,” said Klinsmann, who had been hoping to extend Hertha’s unbeaten run to five games.

The visitors thought they had another goal minutes later, but Robert Lewandowski’s goal was ruled out through VAR for heading the ball out of Rune Jarstein’s hands.

Lewandowski finally got his goal from the penalty spot in the 72nd after Lukas Klunter tugged Leon Goretzka’s arm.

“The turning point was the penalty,” said Klinsmann, who felt it was a harsh decision.

Thiago Alcantara sealed the result three minutes later with a brilliant strike in off the underside of the bar after Goretzka sent him through, and Ivan Perisic headed in Muller’s cross in the 84th.

Bayern had been missing defenders Niklas Sule, Lucas Hernandez and Javi Martinez through injury, with forward Kingsley Coman also out and midfielder Joshua Kimmich suspended. Canadian teen Alphonso Davies made his 10th consecutive league start.

Santiago Ascacibar started for his Hertha debut after his winter transfer from second-division Stuttgart. The combative Argentine is Hertha’s first signing following financier Lars Windhorst’s investment of $250 million in the club.

Also Sunday, Bayer Leverkusen won 4-1 at bottom side Paderborn to move sixth.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Ciaran Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP

La Liga roundup: Messi scores, wins game in Setien’s Barcelona debut (video)

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Barcelona’s vintage playing style in their 1-0 win over Granada highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Barcelona 1-0 Granda

With a goal from Lionel Messi against an iron-willed Granada, Barcelona are back at the top of La Liga.

The win is the club’s first under Quique Setien, who debuted as the Catalans manager after replacing Ernesto Valverde.

Barcelona rolled back to the years of Pep Guardiola‘s tiki-taka, as they culminated the game with 83 percent possession and completed 1005 passes. That said, Granda – playing  with 10 men from the 69h minute on – were bulletproof until the 76th minute. Messi gently pushed the ball with his weak foot, finishing what had been a series of fluid, build-up passing.

Setien deployed a nuanced 3-4-3 variation – far from Valverde’s 4-3-3 formation that ended up costing him his job after losing to Atletico Madrid in the Super Copa semifinals.

Players like Sergio Busquets were asked about the distinct styles, but he was candidly opposed to comparing the managers and their philosophies.

“We were a solid team. We had control of the ball. They created little against us,” he told Movistar. “It’s true that we struggled when they dropped deep but, in general terms, the team played a good game.

“It’s not about comparing. Every coach has his style and his way of seeing football. You’ll see what Setien asks us to do. We’re not going to reveal it. We’re delighted with what Ernesto did and we’re delighted with Setien.”

With Real Madrid and Atletico right behind, the defending champions have a long way to go this season. They’ll have to build on the win and, more importantly, further deepen their chemistry under the ex-Real Betis boss. Integrating winter signings into the fold might present itself as a challenge, too.

But one thing is certain: Barcelona can still play like they did back in their glory days. If that sticks, a lot can happen.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Mallorca 4-1 Valencia

Real Betis 3-0 Real Sociedad

Villarreal 1-2 Espanyol

Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Celta Vigo