This was supposed to Ryan Sessegnon’s season, or so everyone thought. He and Fulham brought such excitement to the English second-tier last term, but in the Premier League they have been incredibly frustrating.
That is, until recently or, more specifically, Claudio Ranieri’s arrival. The ‘Tinkerman’ replaced Slavisa Jokanovic in mid-November, and Sessegnon is already reaping the rewards of playing under a man who has mentored and developed the likes of Claudio Marchisio, Frank Lampard and Fabio Cannavaro.
Sessegnon has shown sudden improvement under the Italian’s guidance and it can be seen in the stats. In his nine games under Ranieri, he has provided one goal and four assists, as well as creating 16 chances. It is a significantly better return than the one goal, one assist and nine chances created in 12 games under Jokanovic.
Those contributions have been crucial too. He assisted twice in Fulham’s 3-2 victory over Southampton, scored in the 1-1 draw with Wolves and provided the cross for Aleksandr Mitrovic’s stoppage time winner against Huddersfield. Had he not been sidelined through injury when the Cottagers battled to a goalless draw with relegation rivals Newcastle, one would think his struggling side could be two points better off.
His performances under Ranieri are no coincidence or a result of the cliched new manager impact. This is a running theme throughout Ranieri’s career – albeit one rarely recognised or given the credit it deserves.
If the list of players he has handed debuts to doesn't impress you - featuring names such as Cannavaro, Ciro Immobile, Yannick Carrasco and Ben Chilwell - then the youngsters he has signed certainly should do. Lampard and Joe Cole were purchased when in charge of Chelsea, James Rodriguez and Anthony Martial for Monaco and young up-and-comers Wilfried Ndidi and Demarai Gray at Leicester. Credit, of course, must go to the club’s recruitment teams too, but it was Ranieri himself who made these players integral to his successes.
It was with James, Carrasco, Martial and Liverpool’s Fabinho that Ranieri guided Monaco to promotion in the 2012-13 season, all four players then 22-years-old or younger. He kept his faith in those same young players in Ligue 1, while also recruiting other youngsters, which paid dividends when they finished second on their return to the top flight.
“When I was under [Ranieri] at Monaco,” Dimitar Berbatov said, “there were so many young players there like Martial, [Joao] Moutinho, [Radamel] Falcao, James Rodriguez. All these talented footballers with potential and he was working well with them. Ranieri has that experience, he knows how to handle not only young talent, but the big names too.”
Ranieri has the experience to aid Sessegnon and Fulham that Jokanovic lacked, particularly in the Premier League, but the key is that he doesn’t just ‘handle’ young talents – he gives them the opportunity to thrive.
Today, chances for academy players at Chelsea are like gold dust, but they weren’t in his tenure. “I watched John Terry in the second team, and thought: 'My God, this guy is very, very good,’” Ranieri said to Sky Sports, reflecting on his four years at Stamford Bridge. "I had a couple of centre-backs who had won the European Championship, the World Cup - Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf - but I said John had to play, and I put him close to Desailly."
The rest, as they say, is history. Terry played 26 games in Ranieri’s first season in charge and 47 the year after – a number bettered by just five players. One of those five was 22-year-old Lampard, who, after signing from West Ham, played more games (53) than anyone else in Chelsea blue that season.
"I am a huge fan of Claudio Ranieri - I love him, he changed my career,” Lampard told the media after the Italian's appointment at Fulham. “Obviously [the move to Stamford Bridge] was a catalyst for me to what I could be part of at Chelsea at that point. [He’s] a great man, a great manager."
By putting young Terry alongside the experienced Desailly, Ranieri helped develop one of the greatest centre-backs England has ever seen. He put emphasis on developing Lampard’s defensive capabilities, but still allowed him the attacking freedom that gave the midfielder his first double figures goals tally. His role in developing one of the Premier League's most complete midfielders, the only one to score more than 100 goals in the division, cannot be understated.
Although a completely different player to Lampard, Ranieri can develop Sessegnon in a similar manner. “I explained what I wanted to do with [Lampard],” the manager told Sky Sports. “‘Look Frank, I love how you attack but I want to improve how you defend because I am an Italian manager and I like to defend as well as attack.’”
Despite valuing the defensive organisation of his Italian roots, Ranieri’s teams are always exciting to watch. Sessegnon’s attacking abilities are already thriving under his charge, with the player himself explaining that he has been encouraged in this manner. “The gaffer has told me just to be positive and go forward, don’t play back too many times,” he told the Independent. “He sees me as someone attacking in the final third of the pitch and hurting teams.”
Sessegnon’s reputation as a defender suffered under Jokanovic’s charge. Fulham were without a clean sheet when the Serb was dismissed, with 31 goals conceded in 12 games. The defensive mess that he oversaw was anything but beneficial for Sessegnon’s development.
Ranieri is slowly repairing that damage, with 16 goals conceded and two clean sheets in his nine games. But he’s also rebuilding something else that was torn down during Fulham’s horrid start – a fantastic team spirit. It’s that which allowed Ranieri to lead Leicester to the most unlikely of title wins in 2016.
“It’s never been a secret our target was to stay up but [Ranieri] almost just filled us with confidence again,” Jeffrey Schlupp, one of the young players key to the Foxes’ success under Ranieri, told the Guardian back in that incredible season. “He said that he’d watched a lot of our games, that we were a lot better than where we were last season, and the lads felt good about it. From the first training session onwards [there were] just good vibes. He said it would transform us as a team and that’s what [he did].”
Sessegnon’s experience of Ranieri coming to Fulham is not too dissimilar. “Our body language [in the first game vs Southampton] was down to everything that the gaffer’s done since he’s come in,” he said. “He’s changed a lot of things in terms of we eat together and we leave together now. Before we used to just come up to the canteen and when you finished, you’d just go. Now you can’t leave until everyone’s finished. I think it’s about keeping that team bonding and everyone together. The warm-ups we do in training are all together, too. We have to follow each other in a line or in patterns. Little things like that help on the pitch.”
This supportive environment is exactly what a young talent needs. The belief and faith Ranieri instils in his players gets the very best out of them. Whether it’s handing out debuts to the likes of Cannavaro, promoting academy products like Terry or signing promising stars such as Lampard, his man management has consistently created world-beaters.
“When you say something to Frank [Lampard], he will remember,” Ranieri once said. “The manager speaks with everybody but only the champion remembers in that moment what the coach said.”
Ranieri has already described Sessegnon as a “very intelligent” footballer and “one of the best young players” he has coached.
If he makes the most of the opportunity to work with the ‘Tinkerman’, then we could be looking at another superstar in the making.