Back in 2000, Claudio Ranieri watched his first-ever Chelsea reserve match and saw enough in a young John Terry to make him a first-team regular that season. From that moment on, the London club began their meteoric rise to the top of English football. In Ranieri’s last season, he led the club to second place behind Arsenal’s Invincibles and ahead of Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering Manchester United side, yet somehow left rather unappreciated by the British media.
The elusive league title
Despite winning several national cups, league titles had always eluded the Rome-born coach. In fact, by the time Leicester City appointed him, he had finished runner-up in four league campaigns, twice in Italy, once in France and once in England. When he arrived at the King Power Stadium, the Foxes were 5,000/1 rank outsiders in the Premier League betting market and the UK media widely mocked his appointment.
Method behind the miracle
To understand how this miraculous triumph happened, you have to go back to end of the season prior to Ranieri’s appointment. The club seemed destined for relegation when a run of seven wins in their last nine games saw them survive against all the odds. The spirit revealed during that run was noted by the new boss who felt that if it could be harnessed – and combined with a more professional approach in all other areas of the club including training, recovery, analysis and recruitment – it could carry the team to a more respectable finish.
On the recruitment side, Christian Fuchs and Shinji Okazaki arrived from German clubs Schalke and Mainz respectively, while N’Golo Kanté arrived from Caen with everyone, including Ranieri, not fully convinced about his credentials.
Having carried the momentum from the season before into the new campaign. Ranieri now needed to keep it going and this meant tweaking what was already in place rather than wholesale changes. He brought Danny Drinkwater back into the First XI and switched to a new 4-4-1-1 formation which brought out the best in Kanté, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, the latter setting a new Premier League goalscoring record by netting in 11 consecutive games.
A winning environment
Off the field, Ranieri kept good relationships with the media and created a positive air around the club that even had neutrals and fans of other clubs cheering them on. Behind the scenes, state-of-the-art sports science methods were introduced in order to keep injuries to a minimum.
Ranieri picked up the nickname ‘Tinkerman’ at Chelsea, thanks to his habit of rotating players
Ironically, having picked up the nickname ‘Tinkerman’ at Chelsea, thanks to his habit of rotating players, Ranieri referred to maintain a consistent line-up at Leicester (using fewer players than any team), perhaps aware that outside of his best XI, the quality was not quite there.
More than one way to win
Ultimately, in a game now dominated by teams that covet possession, Ranieri found another way to win. The tactics were designed to produce effective football regardless of aesthetics. In fact, the team finished in the bottom three for possession and pass completion during that title-winning season. However, they had two of the fastest players in the league (Vardy and Schlupp) and scored more goals on the counter-attack than anyone else.
Despite the meticulous planning, the outcome still exceeded all expectations and was only possible because everything fell into place at the right time. And looking back, it still feels like some kind of surreal dream.