Ranieri Remastered. An Illustrated History

I‘m rather ambivalent toward Claudio Ranieri, even though he’s still considered a worthwhile coaching choice despite the shaky premises of his football. I enjoyed his work in Spain and England, but I would never call it a masterpiece. As for his protracted time in Italy, its robustness could easily fool viewers into astonishment, yet it was more interesting in theory than in delivery. In times of free-ranging tactical sophistication, Ranieri alternated an unmistakable defensive approach of his own with delirious flights of pugilistic soccer. Only in the field of percussive midfield he could be said to have assimilated some of the exquisite melodic inversions of the European game. Headily reclusive, Ranieri’s style is best characterized as one of fluid contradictions. Except for an all-star reunion with Totti at Roma, his playing grew increasingly conventional; by the time he cemented a reputation as the ultimate ‘fixer’ of football he began to appear retrograde—like, say, a great be-bop saxophonist of the past who had lost the attention of young listeners.

Ranieri’s moral rectitude and ethical composure always presented an illusory volatility (as in the case of his tenure at Juventus, where he was the co-author of very dubious marketing decisions and where he finally acted as though he could cause his former bosses some toothache by revealing newly found scraps of studiospeak and locker-room secrets, which, in truth, could only satisfy the anally oriented); his career, however, retained a great dignity. So I am inspired to take a few risks here and issue a marathon repackaging of Ranieri’s stages as a coach, by illustrating them as an underground progression in sci-fi artwork. And the selection starts here:—

First Serie A Spells: Down to Earth.

As much as the completist delights in searching through back catalogs of dusty football performances, the entire plot of Ranieri’s career revolves around a vengeful/vindictive/insane man inflicting tortures on an unsuspecting audience. This period is of the PG-13 sort, and it also establishes the pattern of Ranieri as the über-realist. His moves are a lesson in entropy, dry as a martini.

Summary (limited spoilers): launched Gianfranco Zola to replace Diego Maradona at Napoli, and won a Coppa Italia with Fiorentina in 1996. Final Evaluation: 3/5 (low adrenaline pumping).

At Valencia: Eight Keys to Eden.

This tract is actually divided in two halves: one readable and relatively thought-provoking, the other overshadowed by failure. Ranieri’s style is, at this juncture, an intellectual climb into higher grounds of football lore, with a few eureka moments, such as the Copa del Rey in 1999, some slumping starts, and the forced strain of unfunny humor creeping in at the wrong moment.

Summary (no spoilers): credited with establishing Valencia’s future successes, with helping out Gaizka Mendieta, and with an abundance of Italian signings, including Marco Di Vaio, Stefano Fiore and Bernardo Corradi. Final Evaluation: 4/5 (good early plotting), 1/5 (abysmal last season ending with him being sacked).

In Madrid: Waters of Death.

In a desperate attempt to recreate the shimmers of his nostalgic Valencia beginning, Ranieri moves to Madrid; never as in this phase, his football is a masquerade of decaying limbs and putrid puddles. Brought in to facilitate the harvesting process, he ends up witnessing the dissolution of the club management and with no oxygen or gas left in the tank.

Summary (short-lived): resigned nearing the brink of relegation to avoid the wrath of a notoriously unmerciful president. Final Evaluation: 1/5 (a terrible situation).

The Chelsea Canon: Conversations.

With minimal digressions, this is the period that establishes Ranieri’s international reputation: a relentless affair, distilling soccer wisdom from a morally upright figure into something occasionally poignant, yet ultimately unremarkable. While the famous accusation of over-rotating the Chelsea squad earns him the predictable jingoism and distrust of otherwise sympathetic pundits (who conclude, in David Platt’s words, that “building a team that can win the title and actually steering this team to the title are two different matters entirely”), this period should be seen as the one in which Ranieri, a staunch pragmatist, actually decides to risk everything in a series of bizarre substitutions.

Summary (all is well-known): formed the first Frank Lampard-midfield in history, spent £120 million prior to a record-breaking season, and penned a memoir with the laughable title of Proud Man Walking. Final Evaluation: 4/5 (the vintage Tinkerman years).

Fighting Shape: Magellan.

In February 2007 Ranieri is appointed at Parma to begin what would remain a brief and successful run offering enormous allegorical implications for his future as a coach. With the relegation battle in full-swing, he manages 17 points out of 10 matches. Impressive goals-scoring is intermittent, but the Ranieri philosophy looks intact: tranquilizing football government; hunger and fear of death defeated.

Summary (surprising developments): avoided relegation and linked with several managing jobs. Final Evaluation: 4/5 (the first of his last-minute sequences).

Scary Monsters: The Man in the Maze.

As a Juventus coach, during the aftermath of the match-fixing scandal, Ranieri is again in contact with interstellar beings and recalled like Philoctetes is lured back into action to help the Achaeans. He emphasizes managing trends that have surfaced in the past: support of holding midfielders (like the young Claudio Marchisio) and bad marketing calls (like the unforgivable opposition to the transfer of Xabi Alonso to Italy). This period is a dark and brooding backdrop for the human drama of old age that unfolds: Ranieri’s impotence only underlines Mourinho’s power-hold and, as a final touch, is being sacked by youth chief Ciro Ferrara.

Summary (predictable spoilers): fought with vigor and intensity against a better enemy, brought the concept of ‘emergency board meeting’ to a whole new level. Final Evaluation: 3/5 (band-leader exercises).

Back to Rome: The Bright Phoenix.

Early in 2009 a time-worn but proven Ranieri comes back to a Roma side in paltry, woeful devolution from Spalletti’s mechanisms of the “perfect” state; the coach, once again, shows the qualities of a character coming to grips with the deficiencies of the system and is not scared to return to a primitive but somehow “truer” pseudo-heroic soccer civilization. The fulcrum of Ranieri’s transformation lacks any seductive nuance, except for the sinking into a forgettable melodrama of childhood, but his stern discipline is neatly summarized by a double substitution of the twin local champions, De Rossi and Totti, ending up in a derby-victory.

Summary (counter-intuitively): hailed by the Italian press, this sequence of Ranieri’s career is actually sad and softened by surrender. Final Evaluation: 2/5 (a narrative of martyrdom).

At the Court of Moratti: The Dakota Project.

After Gasperini is sacked for poor performances, Ranieri signs a prestigious two-year contract as a coach of Internazionale. He shuttles between moments of intriguing characterization and oppressive gloom, until finally resorts to frustratingly obvious references to a “second coming” (of sorts). Beaten by Marseille in Champions League, his use of unusual footballing textures approaches the weird cytoplasmic orange covers of 1970s pulp fiction. His incapacity to handle Antonio Conte’s tactical master-strokes ends the speculations about his inevitable replacement.

Summary (no spoilers): reconciled with Mourinho for both pragmatic and sentimental reasons, failed at a sunset-like, rough and belated dream of greatness. Final Evaluation: 2/5 (uneven). ♦

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