Claudio Ranieri has revealed the secrets behind Leicester City's remarkable season, insisting the English Premier League's surprise story "gives hope to everybody".
Ranieri's appointment in July was seen as a huge gamble but he has guided Leicester to the top of the Premier League and gatecrashed the elite, with the 3-1 win at Manchester City last weekend continuing the fairy tale. Leicester will face Arsenal this weekend as genuine contenders for the title and the mind games have cranked into gear after Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, claimed that they were now the favourites.
Ranieri is refusing to shift from his cautious persona, at least publicly, but he has given a detailed account of his approach, starting from the first day of pre-season training in Austria.
"When I arrived in August I started to look at the videos of all the games from the previous season. When I spoke with the players I realised that they were afraid of the Italian tactics," he said.
"They did not look convinced, and neither was I. I have great admiration for those who build new tactical systems, but I always thought the most important thing a good coach must do is to build the team around the characteristics of his players. So I told the players that I trusted them and would speak very little of tactics. It was important to me that they all ran hard, just as I'd seen them running towards the end of last season."
Ranieri had not operated in English football since his departure from Chelsea in 2004, enduring a miserable experience in his last post before Leicester as manager of Greece. But he has adapted his methodology since returning to the Premier League, giving his players "at least" two days off a week in a strategy that appears to contradict the grind of Italian football.
He said: "In England the game is always high intensity and wipes people out. They need more time to recover. We play on Saturdays and then Sunday is free. We resume on Monday with light training, the way they do it in Italy. Tuesday is hard training, Wednesday absolute rest. Thursday another hard workout, Friday is preparation for the match, Saturday another game.
"I make sure the players have at least two days off from football each week. This is the pact I made with the players on the first day: I trust you. I'll explain a little football ideas every now and then, as long as you give me everything."
It appears that Ranieri's relaxed approach even stretches to the canteen. "Sometimes we sit at the dinner table and I am frightened at how much they eat. I learnt to smile. If they run this hard, they can eat what they like," he said. "In England they are aware they're young, healthy and in a great job. It would be stupid to waste all that. When they train, they always put the same effort as a match."
Leicester are five points clear and have won admirers for their energy and commitment, with talented stars such as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez supplemented by the solidity and discipline of N'Golo Kante and Robert Huth. They are also thriving on the challenge of upsetting the odds, with Austrian international Christian Fuchs even admitting: "We're just having fun."
Ranieri, 64, has admitted that a relaxed dressing room is the key to their astonishing campaign. "They so need to be relaxed and not harassed. They expect calm and respect in the dressing room, so if you want to be a prima donna, they won't forgive you for it. I always tell my players to find the fire within themselves. A chance like this will never come round again. Seek that fire, don't be ashamed of it. And they are not ashamed, if anything they demand to dream."
So can Leicester win the title? "I don't know, but it's fantastic that we've earned the question. When I arrived the chairman asked me for 24 points by Christmas - we got 37 or 39, I can't remember how many. And we are still up there. In an era when money counts for everything, I think we give hope to everybody."
The Daily Telegraph