Claudio Ranieri struggling to reinvent Fulham but urges forward momentum

Jacob Steinberg

Claudio Ranieri is a man in a hurry. Fulham’s manager will be unhappy if he sees his team playing like a bad Manchester City tribute act for the rest of the season. With Premier League survival on the line, the Italian is running out of patience. Questions about his philosophy elicit a measured but pointed response and Ranieri’s message was clear before Fulham host Manchester United on Saturday: the time for learning is over.

While Ranieri delivered a few nice lines about grit and determination, saying that Fulham need “soldiers who have to fight until the end” against United, it was when he turned his thoughts to tactical concerns that his frustrations became more apparent. His demand that his players get the ball forward quickly sounds reasonable enough, but the challenge is forcing a rapid shift in mentality in a group who spent three years learning a different style of football under Slavisa Jokanovic.

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Fulham, seven points below 17th-placed Burnley and yet to win away, are surely destined to drop back into the Championship unless they trust in Jokanovic’s successor. Yet some of the noises are unconvincing. For instance, it was interesting to hear Tom Cairney observe that Fulham are a team who “have got to pass the ball” after the midfielder played a crucial role last month in the thrilling comeback win against Brighton & Hove Albion. “We can’t really outfight teams,” Cairney said. “We aren’t big enough. We aren’t strong enough.”

Ranieri, who has not won away in the Premier League since April 2016, has other ideas. “I love when we keep possession but look forward,” he said. “I get crazy when we keep possession and go back to our goalkeeper, because the opponent’s goal is the other side. Keep possession, go forward. Don’t keep possession and go back. If we are maybe 30 metres from the opposition goal and we go back, pass the ball to the goalkeeper, who makes a long kick and we arrive in the middle of the pitch. Why?”

Ranieri, who has struggled to inspire an improvement since his appointment in November, considered that Fulham had flourished with a patient style in the past. “Last season they were one of the best teams, they kept possession,” he said. “But at the end they had to buy Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored goals. A lot of matches they won 1-0, 2-1. It was a battle. Now there are better teams. If you keep possession and you don’t score, sooner or later you are too spread out and you concede a goal.”

He continued along that theme and accepted it is not easy to change a team’s tactics in such a short space of time. “It’s difficult,” Ranieri said. “The more intelligent think: ‘OK, I have the ball, I have to pass forward.’ Who is not intelligent pass the balls horizontally and we lose the ball and give the counterattack to them.”

While Ranieri arrived in west London with a reputation as a miracle worker after winning the Premier League with Leicester in 2016, there was no sign of any magic during last week’s lifeless defeat at Crystal Palace. Ryan Sessegnon, their brilliant teenage winger, was an unused substitute and supporters were alarmed to see Cairney toiling on the right of a front three.

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Ranieri believes that Sessegnon needs more nastiness and he sounds unlikely to entrust Cairney with a role in the middle against United, especially if he persists with a 3-4-3 system.

“I like Cairney but I want him more forward,” Ranieri said. “I don’t like when he comes back because if he comes back, I don’t have anybody in front. I want him between the lines. He can make the difference. He can make the last pass. He can shoot a goal. He can make a cross.”

Fulham’s only chance against Palace stemmed from Cairney drifting inside and picking out Joe Bryan, whose cross deserved a better finish from Mitrovic. “He starts from outside to come inside,” Ranieri said. “Juan Mata does the same. The two at Manchester City, Silva, Mahrez, they always come in the middle. He can make some difference there.

“He’s comfortable when he plays free. When you’re in the middle and lose the ball you have to work hard to regain the ball. In that position, he stops. No. That’s no good. In that position you can win or lose the match, in the centre of midfield.”

Cairney’s difficulty to fit in epitomises Fulham’s plight. They spent heavily last summer and made further additions last month, bringing in Havard Nordtveit, Ryan Babel and Lazar Markovic, but confusion reigns. Ranieri is still trying to create a new identity. He has 13 games to make it work and the clock is ticking.

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