Former tinkerer Ranieri makes Leicester tick
Ranieri's 'if it ain't broke, don't tinker' approach working wonders at Leicester
Leicester City spent this time last season rooted to the bottom of the table.
Jamie Vardy spent this time last week locked in a deep freezer.
Nothing about the Foxes is conventional or predictable right now.
As the snow falls across England, Leicester are the club who came in from the cold to savour the white heat of the Premier League summit.
But this is no early-season fluke.
Their success can be attributed to a tinkerman who stopped tinkering.
When the club's owners announced the new manager in pre-season, Leicester's hometown hero, Gary Lineker, took to Twitter to type: "Claudio Ranieri? Really?"
Lineker's initial scepticism was valid. Ranieri's reputation for meddling preceded him.
After three swift sackings, his tinkering had become the equivalent of throwing players' names at a wall in the vague hope that something would stick.
So he stopped. Just like that.
Despite the chequered resume, Ranieri's is still a wily operator.
The Italian knew what he was inheriting. Leicester were not a losing team, just a lost one.
Nigel Pearson had mislaid his moral compass, alienating and offending too many people, but not his man-management strengths. He had fostered a siege mentality with a solid side.
The Foxes won seven of their final nine games last season. Leicester were one of the country's in-form sides before Ranieri came on board.
Even so, his decision to mostly maintain the status quo was a masterstroke not to be taken lightly.
It seems obvious now, but managers can display all the subtlety of a stray dog marking new territory by peeing on a tree when they take over a new club.
David Moyes dismantled the most successful backroom staff in EPL history at Manchester United and Brendan Rodgers never got his dugout right at Liverpool.
But Ranieri kept Pearson's right-hand men Craig Shakespeare and Steve Walsh as his assistants, a decision that could only be taken by a manager entirely secure in his position.
On the playing side, the tinkering was replaced with a more practical approach. Of the first 11 against Newcastle, only N'Golo Kante came in after Ranieri.
He's been an excellent addition in central midfield alongside Daniel Drinkwater.
Since April 4, Leicester have won 15 of 22 games and lost only twice.
If it ain't broke, don't tinker.
What Ranieri did instead was eradicate the rancour. He made Leicester likeable again, not only with the general public but also among themselves.
As Jose Mourinho has discovered, a siege mentality has a limited shelf life. It's exhausting and, ultimately, counter-productive.
So Ranieri's recent "pizza for clean sheets" promise was ingenious.
After the 1-0 win against Crystal Palace, the manager forked out for the squad to get stuck in at the finest pizzeria in the city.
The camaraderie was unmistakable. Make pizza for the men and they'll run through walls for the manager, or recover more points from losing positions than any other side in the Premier League (which is handy considering they have also conceded the most goals - 20 - in the top half of the table).
Or their main striker will spend a week in a cryotherapy chamber to accelerate his recovery from a hip injury (and it worked. Jamie Vardy scored in 10 consecutive games after netting one against Newcastle).
Like the beers on the bus on the way home from St James' Park, the old-school approach is paying dividends. Vardy speaks of his desire to please "Mr Ranieri" and Kasper Schmeichel champions the contentment in the camp.
But it's not all beers and pizzas. Ranieri makes the most of finite playing resources. The 4-4-2 seems basic, but appearances are deceptive.
On the right, Riyad Mahrez has been a revelation. The Algerian slips inside or dashes off on the overlap as Leicester's creator-in-mischief.
If Vardy's 12 goals in 10 games are ripped from a Hollywood script, it's directed by Mahrez.
Both Mahrez and Marc Albrighton are encouraged to press at every opportunity, presumably to overcompensate for Leicester's porous defence.
And if Vardy's rise from non-league to England international has been well documented, his relationship with partner Leonardo Ulloa (or Shinji Okazaki) was no happy accident. His goals were harvested on the training ground.
Ranieri and Vardy analyse the weak sides of upcoming centre backs and then tweak his penalty box runs accordingly in training.
Vardy's years as a part-time footballer, juggling two jobs, serve him well now. He thrives on heavy industry and lots of homework from his Italian teacher.
Ranieri inherited Vardy, as he did a squad that was already improving. He just softened the edges and removed the creative shackles.
Pearson brought the fire and brimstone, but Ranieri brings beer and pizza to a party that no one wants to end.