When Watford appointed Claudio Ranieri as manager in October, their aim was to stop the “negative trend” they had identified in performances and avoid the prospect of a Premier League relegation battle.
The club’s owners, the Pozzo family, are famed for their ruthless dealings with managers. Ranieri is their 10th appointment in seven years and his predecessor, Spaniard Xisco Munoz, was sacked with the Hornets 14th in the table having collected seven points from their opening seven games.
Three months on and, following Saturday’s 1-1 draw with fellow strugglers Newcastle, Watford are a point above the bottom three.
It’s now two wins and 10 defeats in all competitions since Ranieri came in, but few of those games have carried as much significance as their trip to Norwich on Friday.
With Newcastle out of the way – and Tuesday’s trip to Burnley postponed – they face the Canaries knowing that defeat would see them drop into the relegation zone for the first time this season. They could even be bottom by the end of the weekend.
How bad have things been under Ranieri?
Last weekend’s draw with Newcastle offered some hope for Hornets fans, particularly with January signings Hassane Kamara, Edo Kayembe and Samir all having promising debuts.
But the form under Ranieri, 70, has not been full of promise.
Watford have not kept a clean sheet under the former Chelsea boss, they have lost more games than any other Premier League team since his appointment and only three managers in Premier League history have had a worse start than his nine losses in 12 games.
And when you look at the form that has cost previous Watford managers their jobs, all of the other departures under the Pozzos have come after runs that were not as bad as Ranieri’s current tally of eight defeats in 10 league matches.
No Pozzo-era manager has lost that many in their final 10 matches before leaving, with Javi Gracia, Walter Mazzarri and Marco Silva all departing after seven defeats in 10.
“If you are going to get stability and look to improve, you have to have patience and you have to give managers opportunities,” said former Everton midfielder Leon Osman on BBC Radio 5 Live on Saturday.
“Everyone knows Ranieiri – or the next manager – is only one game away from losing their job. What sort of message is that sending to the players? Are the players fearing a manager? You don’t need to because they probably wont be there too long.”
How come he is still in charge?
Ranieri’s relationship with the owners could possibly have earned him some extra time.
He has a long-standing friendship with the Pozzo family, stretching back 20 years and they had long since wanted him to manage one of their clubs – but that familiarity will also mean Ranieri knows exactly what to expect if results do not improve.
“I have to admit I am very surprised he hasn’t gone already,” former Premier League striker Chris Sutton said recently. “Watford made a mistake sacking Munoz. Any other manager in the history of the club would have been sacked with the record they have got under Ranieri.
“They have been ruthless in the past. Their gut instinct has been right to sack managers, but for some reason they aren’t pulling the trigger this time even though performances have not been good enough.”
A mid-season sacking within months of being appointed by a struggling Premier League club would be nothing new to Ranieri.
It is almost three years since, in February 2019, he was dismissed by Fulham after 106 days in charge following a miserable spell in which he won only three of his 17 games.
In fact, he has endured a miserable run in England since the high point of guiding Leicester City to their remarkable title triumph in 2015-16.
Since that stunning success against all odds, he has a winning record of 19% across spells at Leicester, Fulham and Watford, losing 33 of 53 league games.
“I cant believe they haven’t sacked him,” added former England goalkeeper Rob Green. “Look at the way he runs a side, look at how Fulham went down. I don’t think he is the type of manager for modern players.
“They need micro-managing. He doesn’t do that, he doesn’t organise. I can’t see how he has lasted as long as he has with Watford’s model.”
Is there any hope of a revival?
While Ranieri has endured a difficult time of late in England, sandwiched between his jobs at Fulham and Watford were spells in charge of Serie A sides Roma and Sampdoria.
Ranieri led Roma to sixth place but it is his work at Sampdoria that offers the greatest hope. He took over with the club bottom of the league and guided them to a 15th-placed finish and survival, following that up with ninth spot the following year.
Watford have also moved quickly in an attempt to solve their defensive issues – they have not kept a Premier League clean sheet in 29 matches stretching back to February 2020 – with their trio of signings and the transfer window still open.
And, for the optimists, there are small signs of improvement in some areas under Ranieri.
Goals per game have crept up from 1 under Munoz to 1.3 under Ranieri and expected goals are up from 0.8 to 1.3 – so there is more attacking thrust.
The style of play has changed too, with possession down slightly and more of an emphasis on pressuring opponents, with Ranieri’s side winning the ball back in the final third 4.8 times a game on average, compared to 2.9 under Munoz.
There is also the return of Emmanuel Dennis from injury. The Nigerian striker should have been at the Africa Cup of Nations this month, but missed out following an administrative error.
Dennis has eight goals and five assists in 17 Premier League games this season and seems crucial to Watford’s chances of beating the drop.
Asked on Monday if he was feeling the pressure, Ranieri said: “No. I am very calm and solid with the club. I go forward with all my strength and passion.”
And asked about Rafael Benitez’s sacking by Everton, Ranieri was typically philosophical. “Maybe you are not used to it in England, but in Italy they change managers like they buy an ice cream. That is it.”