LONDON — Claudio Ranieri is back in the Premier League and the much-loved Italian is already working his magic at Fulham.
Without a Premier League win since August, Fulham beat Southampton 3-2 at Craven Cottage on Saturday in Ranieri’s first game in charge.
Wearing a broad smile and applauding the home fans at the final whistle, it just feels right to have Ranieri back in England. In only a few days he lifted the mood at Fulham, who hadn’t won a game since August before edging past Saints in a topsy-turvy game.
And this game showed us not only the size of the task ahead for the former Chelsea and Leicester manager at Fulham, but also that Ranieri has already had an impact on his current squad after just 10 days in the job.
Speaking after the thrilling encounter, Ranieri wasn’t happy with the way his team defended but he has already seen something he likes: his players fighting until the end.
“For us it was an important match, Everyone is very pleased but it is a little step because it is not easy job for everybody. But I believe until the end,” Ranieri said. “I ask the players to fight until the end. We played a good match but we conceded too many chances to the opponent. We have to improve a lot. We have to work hard to improve tactically.”
Similarities will no doubt be drawn to the job Ranieri did at Leicester as he took them from relegation favorites to Premier League title winners in the incredible 2015-16 season.
The way Fulham took their chances when they arrived (three goals from five shots on target) and sat back and tried to hit Saints on the counter was reminiscent of a Ranieri side.
And while nobody is expecting Fulham to emulate Leicester this season, Ranieri knows he faces a huge battle to improve the Cottagers defensively.
Is improving Fulham’s defense (the leakiest in the top-flight this season with 33 goals against) the toughest task he’s had?
“Yes, yes, yes. All the team have to maintain the right position,” Ranieri said. “It is very, very important. In this case they run less and they are always in a good position and for the opponent it is more difficult.”
There’s no doubt that shoring up this Fulham side which was assembled to be free-flowing and attacking will take time, and Ranieri said it would take all season and probably next season to figure that out.
That said, the character they showed to fight back from 1-0 down and then being dragged back to 2-2 was certainly befitting of the fight we’ve seen from Ranieri’s teams in the past.
“Fantastic character. Fantastic fighting spirit. I ask just this. Never, never give up,” Ranieri said. “Work hard until the end and at the end we see the result. After the first goal I wanted to see our reaction, it was amazing. At 2-2 we again wanted to score a goal. I think it was a good match because Southampton also had the chance to score a goal and Sergio Rico made a fantastic save. That is not good because I want less chances for the opponent. Too many chances.”
Mitrovic scored twice and Schurrle added the other, and Ranieri was full of praise for his powerful Serbian striker.
“For me Mitrovic is one of the best strikers in Europe, and when I say Europe I mean all of the world,” Ranieri said. “he is only 24 years old. He is a fantastic player and it is important to give the ball to him because he can play and give us a platform and he’s also a goalscorer when the ball arrives in the box. When he is very close to the goal it is important to give him a lot of chances to score.”
Praising Mitrovic and building up his confidence in this way is a shrewd move from Ranieri.
Mitrovic told Sky Sports after the game that the gameplan from the new manager is clear: get balls into the box.
“Two terrific goals for me. This is what the manager wants – the balls into the box,” Mitrovic said. “We have worked hard. There has been just 10 days with the manager and we need to continue like this.”
Scurrle added that Fulham have “worked a lot on tactical and shape and the way he [Ranieri] wants to play” and although they must improve “today was all about winning.”
Fulham got the win in Ranieri’s first game in charge, even if it wasn’t perfect, and next up he has games against the two Premier League teams he formerly managed: Chelsea and Leicester in the space of four days.
The Italian is a happy man to be back in the thick of things in the Premier League.
“The emotion was high. I make this job because I live for emotion,” Ranieri said. “For me to come back to Premier League is an emotion. For me to come back to Fulham is an emotion, because it is one of the most historical clubs. I’m at a good family club at Fulham and I am very, very pleased.”
The Premier League seems pleased to have the Italian back on the sidelines after a near two-year absence.