“Dilly-ding, dilly-dong!” Watford fans are going to hear that phrase a lot over the coming months. Claudio Ranieri returned to the Premier League this week after Watford took the decision to relieve Xisco of his duties following their 1-0 defeat to Leeds on Saturday. Watford-manager-sacking season arrives earlier each year it seems.
The Pozzo family have made 15 managerial appointments since they took over Watford in June 2012 and dispensed with Sean Dyche. Xisco is the latest boss to be sent packing even though he won promotion from the Championship at the first time of asking and took the club to 15th in the Premier League, four points above the relegation zone. Granted, they have lost four of their first seven matches back in the Premier League, but seven points from their opening seven games seemed like an acceptable return. Not for the Pozzo family though.
Ranieri has been given a solid foundation upon which to build. The 69-year-old will hope his next venture in the Premier League is more Leicester and less Fulham, where he was sacked after just 106 days in the job having won just three of his 17 games. Ranieri returned to Italy after his departure from Fulham in 2019, seeing out the remainder of the 2018-19 season with Roma before taking over at Sampdoria in October 2019.
He really showcased his managerial talent at Sampdoria. When Ranieri signed his deal, Sampdoria sat bottom of Serie A having lost six of their first seven games that season. In the 31 league games that followed, Sampdoria had the 11th-best points haul in the division, with their points-per-game ratio rising from 0.43 to 1.26 as Ranieri guided them to safety. Ranieri improved the team again last season, leading them to a ninth-placed finish in Serie A, but he elected against renewing his deal in Genoa, much to the disappointment of fans.
Ranieri did well to keep Sampdoria in Serie A and Watford fans will be hoping he can repeat that feat in the Premier League. So what should supporters expect from Ranieri in the coming months? Xisco tended to play with one striker this season, with Emmanuel Dennis and Ismaïla Sarr flanking Josh King. For the most part, Ranieri used a 4-4-2 system with Sampdoria last season, a formation that suited their natural wingers Antonio Candreva, Mikkel Damsgaard and Jakub Jankto. If Ranieri does the same at Watford, he will likely play Sarr on the right wing, Ken Sema on the left, and move Dennis up front to partner King.
The style is reliant on tenacious ball winners in the middle of the park to protect the defence. Morten Thorsby, Adrien Silva and Albin Ekdal were Ranieri’s go-to options in central midfield for Sampdoria last season. In Juraj Kucka and Peter Etebo, Ranieri has two tough-tackling central midfielders who will allow Sarr and Sema to flank the frontmen. Etebo is out injured at the minute, but Ranieri has two experienced replacements in Tom Cleverley and Moussa Sissoko.
Ranieri will have to change the mentality of his players too. Sampdoria were set up to play on the front foot and press opponents aggressively in a bid to force mistakes and create goalscoring chances. They won possession in the attacking third 181 times in Serie A last season, the fourth highest return in the league. Watford have only won possession in the attacking third 20 times in their seven games so far this season – only Chelsea and Norwich (both 19) have done so on fewer occasions.
Ranieri does not have a big squad to work with at Watford – they only named 23 players in their 25-man squad for the Premier League this season – but he only used 23 players on his way to winning the league with Leicester, so that should not be a problem. The Italian has already bolstered his Watford squad, signing the experienced Cameroon defender Nicolas Nkoulou on a free transfer this week.
Of course, things will not click into gear straight away for Ranieri, but his record should command the respect of the players. Having a united dressing room will be key. He needs every Watford player to be pulling in the right direction to stave off relegation. Having previously exceeded expectations at clubs in a similar position to Watford, Ranieri has the managerial nous to ensure their latest Premier League stint is not “dilly-ding, dilly-gone” after a single season back in the top flight.