When it rains, it pours. And when fighting relegation down at the bottom of the Premier League table, it can seem as though everything is going wrong.
It felt that way for David Wagner, who left basement club Huddersfield earlier this week, and it must feel that way for Claudio Ranieri, whose Fulham players recently summed up their dysfunctional season by managing to turn a relaxing yoga lesson into a fight.
It’s less than ideal preparation for facing one of the top-flight’s frontrunners, Tottenham, this weekend.
When Ranieri joined Fulham in November, he prioritised work in a number of areas. One was rectifying the defensive issues that had seen them ship the most goals in the league, but off the pitch the Italian also set about trying to improve camaraderie.
To achieve this he insisted that players eat lunch together and wait in the canteen until everyone has finished. He also asked the squad to warm up for training in complete synchronisation, down to the smallest detail of everyone leading with the same foot as the first player.
It was an approach that worked wonders at Leicester when Ranieri led them to their landmark Premier League title in 2016, and it was hoped that it would improve the spirit in a squad that saw 12 new additions arrive during the summer transfer window at a cost of £100m.
But it is two players from last season’s promotion campaign who have clashed repeatedly in the past few weeks, threatening the harmony that Ranieri is working to cultivate.
Strikers Aleksandar Mitrovic and Aboubakar Kamara had to be dragged apart by team-mates after an argument erupted at a yoga session just over a week ago, according to a report in The Sun.
Mitrovic is said to have felt his fellow forward had been rude to the yoga instructor. Kamara was subsequently left out of the Fulham squad for last weekend’s 2-1 defeat at Burnley.
The flashpoint came just days after the same players argued over who should take a penalty in a 1-0 win against Huddersfield on 29 December.
Having won the spot-kick, Kamara refused to allow top scorer and designated penalty taker Mitrovic to carry out his duties. Kamara duly missed, only for Mitrovic to save the day with an injury-time winner.
The situation left Ranieri fuming and remarking in the post-match press conference that he wanted to “kill” the 23-year-old.
It is the kind of behaviour that can damage spirit and, when the team are suffering successive defeats, is deeply unhelpful.
Splashing the cash
The almost excessive addition of players in the summer may be partially to blame. It would not be the first time that an influx of new signings has failed to gel and deliver the expected results.
Yet it was a sign that owner Shahid Khan is willing to throw everything at staying up, with the sacking of Slavisa Jokanovic in mid-November further proof that he is ruthless enough to do what it takes.
Ranieri insisted last week that Fulham “have to sign somebody to survive” and called upon the club to buy an “experienced leader”.
So far, a 32-year-old Ryan Babel is the only addition after the journeyman former Liverpool winger joined from Turkish side Besiktas on a short-term contract.
Ranieri is likely to need more. If Khan continues to invest and the recruitment meets Ranieri’s demands, they may have a fighting chance.
There were signs that the Cottagers had stopped the rot during the festive period, drawing with Newcastle and Wolves before the win against Huddersfield.
Since then, that resurgence has been stifled. Fulham suffered a 4-1 thrashing at Arsenal followed by successive 2-1 defeats to Oldham, in the FA Cup, and Burnley.
Tough tests ahead
For the Cottagers, who languish in 19th, every match is now either against an opponent deemed better than them or a six-point scrap with a relegation rival.
Fulham have three London derbies in their next five games, starting with Tottenham on Sunday and broken up by a clash with the rejuvenated Manchester United and one of those must-win matches, against Brighton.
Sometimes it can be the least expected games in which struggling sides pick up valuable points, and this may yet prove a fruitful time to face Tottenham. With Harry Kane ruled out with an ankle injury until early March and Son Heung-Min representing South Korea at the Asian Cup, Spurs’ firepower has been significantly depleted.
Upon Ranieri taking charge, one bookmaker priced Fulham 5000-1 to win the Premier League next season – the same odds that he famously defied to lead Leicester to the title. As things stand, his new club are in danger of not being part of the 2019-20 competition at all.
The 67-year-old has worked managerial wonders before, with the Foxes’ league win his crowning achievement. There will be no trophy if Ranieri keeps Fulham up, but it will be another miracle.