Claudio Ranieri laughs when I ask him whether his second coming to England has answered his critics.
He was labelled The Tinkerman for continually changing his line-up while at Chelsea and he has never won a top-flight title during a managerial career dating back to 1988.
His sacking as boss of Greece after a 1-0 defeat by Faroe Islands in November 2014 gave his opponents more ammunition but last summer he was back in the hot seat again at Leicester City.
Gary Lineker, a great with both Leicester and England, bemoaned that Ranieri was an “uninspired choice”.
However, Leicester have become one of the most inspiring stories of the season, defying the odds to sit second in the Premier League and an incredible 17 points ahead of Chelsea.
I’ve come to Leicester to interview Ranieri ahead of his side’s double-header with Tottenham and as we sit in the club media room which has a poster of Lineker on the wall, I remind him of the Match of the Day presenter’s comments.
“What he said was normal because people think I don’t have an idea,” says Ranieri. “Now I show my ideas. It is good to have a young manager but also an experienced one.” Then, with another laugh, the 64-year-old adds: “I am not old. I am experienced.”
Ranieri’s affable nature means he can sometimes be seen as a joker and rewarding his players with champagne and pizza has fuelled that image.
But the Italian’s charm should not mask the depth of the man and the way he has transformed Leicester from a team who just beat the drop last year into one giving the elite a bruising.
Their reinvention — one which has allowed Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez to score 28 Premier League goals between them this season — is thanks to Ranieri quickly spotting an issue following his appointment.
“They used to play three at the back,” he says. “In the last month of the season they had a fantastic performance [winning seven of their final nine matches] and stayed up. So I started with three at the back. But, after half an hour of the first friendly, I said, ‘No, no, I don’t feel this formation is right’. And I changed it.
“For the second friendly, again, I started with three at the back and then changed. At the start of the season, I had four at the back. I put Riyad Mahrez on the right, Marc Albrighton on the left. I put Danny Drinkwater in the middle, Jamie Vardy as centre forward with another striker — Shinji Okazaki or Leonardo Ulloa.
“They weren’t used to playing in this way, also they did not play all of last season. They responded very well.”
They have been so effective that Vardy broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s 12-year record by scoring in 11 Premier League games in a row and he should, barring a dramatic slump in form or injury, be in Roy Hodgson’s squad for Euro 2016.
“My blend is English personality with Italian tactics,” he says. “I was an English-type player, very strong, never, never, gave up, fearless always. I want this from my team.”
It was his selections during four years at Chelsea — and particularly his many changes — that drew the most attention but given that rotation is common place these days, was he a visionary?
“At Chelsea, I changed formations because that was the future of football,” he says. “Now it is normal. A lot of managers do that. Playing 80 matches a season is incredible. You would kill a horse if it competed in 80 races a season. It is not possible to have the same line-up. You have to give some rest to the players.”
That strategy saw him lead the Blues to second in the Premier League in 2004 — their highest finish for 49 years — but that was not enough for Roman Abramovich who sacked him to make way for Jose Mourinho.
The Portuguese, who in a twist of fate was axed by Chelsea last month after losing to Leicester, took Ranieri’s team and turned them, with some additions, into back-to-back champions.
Ranieri says: “When I was at Chelsea I bought Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele, Petr Cech and Arjen Robben and I developed John Terry.”
So was he not given enough credit? “That is football. Maybe there are some people who earn praise without doing anything. There are other people who do a lot and are not recognised.”
Ranieri’s career has also taken in clubs in Italy, Spain and France but the title has continued to elude him although he did match his Chelsea performance in Serie A, finishing runners-up with Juventus and Roma.
Tottenham vs Leicester City: Jamie Vardy expected to miss FA Cup clash
“It is not easy to win the title,” he says. “It also makes a difference when you arrive at a big team. At Juventus when I arrived in 2007 there were only five champions [players who had won the title], the other 10 had gone because Juventus had been relegated [after the Calciopoli scandal]. I finished third the first season, second the next year. What do you want?”
Were Ranieri to break his duck and Leicester’s — their best finish was runners-up in 1929 — he would instantly write his name into club folklore.
“I want the fans to go on dreaming — I do not want them to wake up,” says Ranieri. That explains why he has set a goal of 39 points for the rest of the season which would mean Leicester finishing with 79. “Is that enough to win the title? I don’t know. At this moment, nobody can say Arsenal will win the League, or Manchester City. A lot of teams have impressed me.”
They include Spurs, who Leicester meet in the FA Cup on Sunday and in the Premier League on Wednesday with both games at White Hart Lane. “It is difficult to play Tottenham because they have fantastic players. They have a first team and second team the same. They have a lot of young players. Why? Because they started earlier than us. We want to follow their example.”
Acquiring young talent — such as 19-year-old winger Demarai Gray who arrived from Birmingham this week — chimes with the club’s Thai owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Ranieri says: “When I signed he told me he wants to build good, young players and a team that can compete with the big teams, to get into Europe in two or three years, after that the Champions League. I said we’ll work hard to achieve it.”
Ranieri’s experience of owners covers some formidable characters: Abramovich, Jesus Gil at Atletico Madrid and Massimo Moratti at Inter Milan. “I respect all my chairmen. They respect me. I say everything face to face. Nothing in the newspapers.”
But clearly Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, does not fall into this category. When I ask Ranieri whether he is surprised that Perez sacked Rafa Benitez on Monday and appointed Zinedine Zidane, he says: “No. I was surprised when Real Madrid sacked Carlo Ancelotti and sold Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria. I said, ‘Ah, unbelievable. It is a mistake’. They deserve what has happened.”
Then, raising his voice for the only time during our conversation, he asks: “Why would you sack Ancelotti? You have a fantastic machine. A fantastic watch. Why change things? Maybe for merchandising.”
If his form holds, such commercial considerations will not affect Ranieri’s position at Leicester.