Claudio Ranieri and Watford is a match that just seems natural. There is something about them both which makes it difficult to imagine that they hadn’t crossed paths before.
As Ranieri’s career has developed, he has gone from adding some rather sizeable clubs to his CV, to becoming a specialist short-term appointment for a team looking for stability. The 69-year-old has finally agreed to work with the Pozzo family, 20 years after the tried to recruit him for Udinese. Their ideal candidate is someone who can steady a ship for roughly 30 games, before making a change again.
Watford are, generally, a strange case. Their owners are known to disregard cliches and stereotypes about stability and success. They are the lovers of chaos and change and noise, desperate to keep things fresh and hurried, never settled, because settled can soon become stale. In defence of their approach, which has seen the Hornets hire and fire 13 coaches in the last nine seasons, stability has proven to be a myth in some ways.
Clubs who have settled into the Premier League middle ground in the past, such as Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic, have all paid a heavy price for their comfort and spent almost or a decade away from the top flight since. Even those who were promoted with a specific identity – like Stoke City, Swansea City and Bournemouth — eventually ran out of steam.
It is tough to stay afloat in the Premier League when you are always fighting the tide and Watford are not exempt from that. They were relegated after project restart in the summer of 2020 but kept things together in terms of their squad strength — resisting interest in Ismailia Sarr was critical — made their obligatory managerial change and bounced back instantly.
Sacking Xisco Munoz, perceived as a young, hungry coach, so soon after promotion with the club outside the relegation zone, resulted in typical and expected jibes and mockery. However, there wasn’t much of a pushback from Watford fans on the decision, as they implored the wider media to look beyond the favourable league position and fact that it just seems so typical of the Pozzos when dissecting what had happened and why.
Neither are they particularly pleased with the regularity of upheaval, though. It is important for Watford to search for calm but their choice of coach is seldom correct or particularly well thought out. Typically, there is a buzz word that can be used to describe their recruits. Either they are known, like Xisco and Marco Silva, as ‘up and coming’, or they have a reputation and an experienced head, and therefore a safe pair of hands, perfect for whatever the situation may be.
Quique Sánchez Flores and Nigel Pearson, perhaps for differing reasons, fit that particular bill and Claudio Ranieri is right at home at Watford too. Crucially, very few of these coaches have a specific identity, so very little reason for being kept on when things turn sour.
There is an elephant in the room with Ranieri, his title-winning campaign with Leicester City six seasons ago. It was a poetic situtaion with the most unfancied of teams, filled with a squad of unknown players and led by a manager who was ridiculed and dismissed as soon as he came through the door. Back then he was critiqued for similar reasons, his CV preceded him and came before any obvious philosophy or suitability for the job.
What Leicester achieved under Claudio Ranieri that year is so anomalous that it can’t really be taken into account but Watford fans could perhaps look to his approach then for comfort. After a stunning end to the previous season, as they escaped relegation under Pearson, the Foxes were confident in a system. Ranieri kept it, abandoning his nickname of ‘tinker man’, and proving that he can adapt to whatever he situation requires.
The Italian is more than his CV, which includes the likes of Chelsea, Valencia, Inter and Roma but there is a sense that he has to fight the critics again at Vicarage Road. In part, that is not his fault and whether there is any manager Watford could appoint who would be greeted with anything other than an eyebrow raise as if to say ‘don’t bother unpacking your bags, pal’ is a question worth asking.
More pertinent is Ranieri’s last stint in England. He was drafted in at Fulham in even worse circumstances three seasons ago. It was hoped he could use the last of his Leicester magic which, as harsh as it is to admit, had run out by the end to inspire them to avoid relegation after a disastrous start to the season under Slavisa Jokanovic. It didn’t work. He arrived in the winter and didn’t see out the spring and the Cottagers went down.
Things are more positive and less precarious at Watford but it feels like they are at a junction, waiting for Claudio Ranieri to go the Leicester way or the Fulham way. Any sign of the latter and the speculation will instantly begin to simmer which is, ultimately, why there is little longevity there. Nobody can get their feet under the table.
But fans will rightly point out, there has to be a reason to give someone that chance and stability shouldn’t come for the sake of it. The bigger issue with the Pozzos is their choices. There were moments for Silva, with Richarlison firing, Flores and even Javi Gracia but there is doubt and mystery surrounding Ranieri, which is counterintuitive to the reason behind his appointment in the first place.
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