Fulham draw with Leicester but are taking steps forward under manager Claudio Ranieri
LONDON -- "One game at a time" was one of Claudio Ranieri's mantras during Leicester's miracle Premier League title triumph in 2016, and if the early days of his Fulham tenure are anything to go by, it is likely to serve him again at Craven Cottage.
His first game, a knockabout 3-2 win over Southampton, brought him a first victory. He was more encouraged by his side's display in last weekend's 2-0 defeat at Chelsea, and there were further positives to be taken from game three, a 1-1 draw against the Leicester club that he led to sporting immortality.
Fulham defended ruggedly, played compactly, took a deserved first-half lead through Aboubakar Kamara and were pegged back with only 16 minutes remaining.
The west London club remain bottom of the Premier League and have now gone 19 top-flight games without a clean sheet, equalling their all-time record. But as Ranieri crossed the rain-soaked pitch toward the tunnel at full-time, pausing to applaud the Leicester fans chanting his name, he wore the look of a man encouraged by what he had seen.
"We continue to progress. I'm very happy with our performance," said the 67-year-old Italian, who was sacked by Leicester nine months after leading them to the title. "Slowly, slowly. We have to work more. But I'm happy. A lot of the work they understand. Little things, but important things."
Ranieri has turned to some tried-and-tested new-manager tropes in his attempts to instill some discipline in the Fulham changing room. Meals are now eaten as a team, and nobody is allowed to leave the table until the last person has finished. Mobile phones are banned in the hours preceding kick-off.
Writing in the match programme, Fulham skipper Tom Cairney said that Ranieri has "quickly stamped his authority." Fans, meanwhile, have discerned greater steel in the team.
"The main thing he's done is to add some defensive solidity to the side," says season ticket-holder Sammy James, who hosts the Fulhamish podcast. "Whilst I still have huge respect for Slavisa Jokanovic, at times this season we've looked horribly open and that has been rectified. Within three games, Ranieri has settled on a system."
Jokanovic, Ranieri's predecessor, rotated his defensive players continually over the first 12 matches of the campaign and never found the right combination. Ironically, Ranieri has used the same back four that Jokanovic deployed in his final game -- a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool last month -- in each of his three matches in charge, while centre-back Calum Chambers has continued in the midfield holding role that he first took on in that game at Anfield.
"He's going to try and get a stable back four and the two sitting in front of them, [Jean Michael] Seri and Chambers, will stay the same," former Fulham defender Tony Gale told ESPN. "The main problems [under Jokanovic] were giving goals away and giving up possession too easily in their own half. He seems to have rectified that temporarily, but there's still a long way to go."
Ranieri admitted afterward that he had felt "very emotional" facing his former side, just six weeks on from the death of Leicester chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others in a helicopter crash outside the King Power Stadium. Ranieri paid heartfelt tribute to Vichai in his programme notes, describing him as a "great man" who "made this fairytale possible" and offering condolences to his family and to Leicester's staff and supporters.
While the context could not be ignored, Ranieri said he had tried to cast it from his mind: "When the game started, I was concentrating on my team."
There were eight members of his title-winning squad in the visitors' match-day group and there was a subtle nod to the Leicester triumph in Fulham's tactical setup, with the home side shuttling from their 4-2-3-1 starting formation into a compact 4-4-2 when their opponents had the ball.
Ranieri will have been concerned by some of what he saw in the first half. Goalkeeper Sergio Rico was called into action inside three minutes, blocking with his chest from Kelechi Iheanacho after James Maddison had picked Seri's pocket in midfield. Leicester regularly found space behind Fulham right-back Cyrus Christie, and the home side twice switched off at corners, allowing the visitors to find men in space on the edge of the box. On the latter occasion, Wes Morgan's downward header from Marc Albrighton's cross had to be parried by Rico.
But Fulham showed some set-piece craft of their own. In the 20th minute, Seri flighted a free kick to the back post, and from Denis Odoi's knockdown Chambers drew a brilliant one-handed save from Kasper Schmeichel.
Fulham attacked with increasing purpose and there were openings for Chambers, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Kamara, Christie and Luciano Vietto before they struck in the 42nd minute. After Mitrovic helped on Odoi's clearance, a heavy touch by Kamara looked to have taken him too wide of goal. But by simply checking inside onto his right foot, he sent Leicester centre-back Caglar Soyuncu sliding clean off the wet pitch and with the freedom of the six-yard box, the Frenchman steered a shot beneath Schmeichel.
With Alfie Mawson authoritatively marshalling Fulham's back four alongside Odoi, a first clean sheet of the season loomed into view. Leicester did not look like scoring, but changes by Claude Puel gave them fresh impetus. In the 74th minute, substitutes Shinji Okazaki and Demarai Gray swapped passes on the right and Okazaki cut the ball back for the unmarked Maddison to tuck away an equaliser.
Odoi squandered a gilt-edged chance to win it for Fulham in stoppage time, lifting a shot over the bar from substitute Cairney's pass. But despite the home fans' disappointment, the performance suggested a corner has been turned.
"Under Slavisa, we were careering towards relegation," said James. "Now I think we have more than enough to keep ourselves up."
Gale, who made 318 appearances for Fulham between 1977 and 1984, was similarly upbeat.
"I don't think Fulham are in the three worst teams in the Premier League and that's why I think they'll stay up," he said. "I think they made the change just in time."
Not that Ranieri will be looking too far ahead.