There was only one message Claudio Ranieri needed to send out after walking into Watford’s dressing room for the first time.
How did this team react when he walked in?
“Yeah, yeah,” said Ryan Bertrand, a new Watford player who has just entered his fourth season in the Premier League. “We made it out at the end and it was warm, so we gave him a hug. And we said, ‘There’s no pressure,’ and off we went.”
It hasn’t been easy for Watford, who have been beset by injuries, mismanagement and mishaps of various sorts in Ranieri’s first two weeks. In his three months in charge, the veteran Italian manager has had to sift through what looks like an injury crisis, several second-half demotions and, most recently, a calamitous capitulation at Crystal Palace in his team’s opening Premier League game of the season.
The bad news only mounted as a torrent of team illness hit this week, forcing Watford’s new coach to cancel training twice as well as Christmas parties and to move away for a three-day midweek break.
“Maybe it was not good to start after the Christmas period,” said Watford’s record signing, Portuguese defender Jose Holebas, who said the team would end up feeling rested from its recent approach. “It’s good for the new coach. He didn’t have many days with the team and he can improve a lot.”
Claudio Ranieri was also away on a post-Christmas break when Leicester City were knocked out of the EFL Cup by Burnley in his first match in charge. After the win, Ranieri proclaimed his relationship with the players “strained” and added: “I don’t know if this is the beginning of the collapse.”
The events of that match were a disaster in themselves. Watford led, 2-0, and Ranieri’s team looked solid in the first half. But then Claudio Ranieri left the bench to inject himself into the action. The moment soon transformed.
From the sidelines, in hot, chaotic football terms, Ranieri suddenly became Ernie Banks. He was lost in the physicality of the game and resorted to pirouettes and somersaults to escape from the attention of Burnley’s challenge. Burnley surged to a 3-2 victory.
Since that defeat, Watford has won just once in its opening four Premier League games, with four draws and four defeats. Those four games don’t even include Leicester, the team Ranieri walked into when Watford’s squad turned up for its last preseason match in a makeup game arranged by the League Management Committee after Burnley’s bus accident that wrecked its scheduled friendly against Doncaster Rovers.
Ranieri managed to climb the stairs to the coaches’ room to replace Nigel Pearson with a new squad, reconstructed after four years in which Burton Albion was on a path to relegation. But Ranieri managed only four matches in charge at Watford before his season ended in tumult, three of them wins to see Leicester off the bottom of the Premier League and winners in the FA Cup Final.
“I’m finding some balance,” Ranieri said after Friday’s draw with Leicester in an English-language press conference.
While he’s found a niche back in Italy, Ranieri said the move into English football “was not very easy. I just tried everything.”
The draw in London is an important one. Watford drew 1-1 with Leicester in February, and Leicester defeated Watford 2-1 to win the Premier League last season.
“We have to fight against other teams in the league,” said Watford captain Troy Deeney, who gave Watford the lead. “We can’t go behind as many times as we did against Palace. It’s good that we’ve got players with good mentalities, and we will be fine. It’s time to start something new and start with success.”
For 24 hours, though, Watford’s players were eager to pick Ranieri’s brain.
“I feel confidence,” said Bertrand, when asked for his opinion of Ranieri. “It’s about time we make the players feel that confidence. The only way you can do that is to give them a genuine vision of what we want to do. I think he’s done that, very quickly. I’m really pleased to be part of that. He was very clear from the start, he has a clear plan. In and around that, he’s just going to gel the players and the players will adapt. That’s what he did at Leicester.”