When Emmanuel Dennis scored the 4th Watford goal, even the most optimistic of United fans knew that there will be a new manager to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed, it came true. The 4-1 defeat at Vicarage road was the final nail in the coffin for the Norwegian, who lost 4 of his last 7 games in charge including humiliating losses at the hands of Leicester City, Watford, and long time club rivals – Liverpool and Manchester City.
As expected (and probably a little too late), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left his position as the head coach of Manchester United and Michael Carrick was appointed to be the caretaker manager while the board search for a new interim manager. What followed was a host of names being linked to be the successor of the 47 year old including Ernesto Valverde, Rudi Garcia and Lucien Favre. Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag have been rumoured to be the favourites to take over next summer and while there were rumours that Pochettino would be willing to swap Paris for Manchester, the deal never materialised.
On Wednesday, David Ornstein and Laurie Whitwell broke the news of Ralf Rangnick being appointed as the interim boss at Manchester United till the end of the season, with a 2 year consultancy role after the season ends in May. According to club sources, Manchester United hierarchy have maintained that the German was their primary target for the interim role and after an initial breakdown in talks last Monday, John Murtough, Darren Fletcher and Ed Woodward got the deal over the line 2 days later.
Regarded as a smart appointment by many, today we’ll have a look at what Ralf Rangnick can offer the Red Devils as a manager and indeed, as a consultant later on.
Ralf Rangnick, the manager
First, we will talk about Ralf Rangnick, the manager. Rangnick first became a manager in the late 1980s starting as a player coach for his local side Viktoria Backnang. His first job as a manager came for SSV Reutlingen 05. Afterwards, he managed a number of clubs in Germany, including VFB Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, Schalke and most recently, RB Leipzig. Throughout his career, he has a track record of improving the teams he managed.
Ralf Rangnick has also earned a lot of plaudits for his tactical acumen. Widely regarded as the godfather of the counter pressing or ‘gegenpressing’ style of play, Rangnick has shown immense tactical nous during his time as a manager. After his Hoffenheim side decimated Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund with a scoreline of 4-1 In 2008, the current Liverpool boss said “That’s the kind of football we want to play one day”. He is regarded as “The professor” in Germany for his methodical and detail oriented approach to training and coaching his teams.
So, how will Manchester United line up under the German?
Rangnick has used many formations in his tenure, such as a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond and even a 3-5-2 but his most preferred formation is the 4-2-2-2. This is the formation which would suit United the most but he can even opt for a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1.
Despite his formation, his principles remain the same. He likes a high pressing team and focuses a lot on winning the transitions. He likes to set up pressing traps by using 2 players to press and blindside pressing for the man on the ball with a 3rd player, thus creating a numerical advantage while pressing the ball. He also uses various different pressing triggers, such as a loose touch or a ball shifted in wide areas, to initiate the press. His focus on high pressing football would suit Fred and Scott McTominay, who are good pressers of the ball but not that polished positionally.
To understand the extent of his focus on transitions, we need to look at his training sessions with RB Leipzig where he introduced a 10-second clock rule with a custom clock made for this. The clock would tick loudly and all the players playing could hear it. The 10-second rule indicates that once the team wins the ball back, they must create a goalscoring opportunity within 10 seconds, thus completing the attacking transition. His RB Leipzig side ranked 1st in Europe in terms of defensive actions leading to shots and defensive actions leading to goal for the 2018/19 season. In terms of defensive transitions, the time limit was 8 seconds instead of 10, meaning that the team must win the ball back in 8 seconds after they have lost it, thus proving his detail to dominate the transitions, attacking or defending.
In terms of build up play, the German is not a fan of wide players and wants his wide players to tuck inside and act like a ‘inside forward’ almost creating a hexagonal shape with the 2 defensive midfielders behind and the two attackers in front of the two inside forwards. This would suit Manchester United’s wide players very nicely as all of them like drifting into the central areas and making things happen. Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and even Donny van de Beek are players who are best suited to play in the half spaces and that is what Rangnick will allow them to do. Sancho, who is known for his creativity in the final third by occasionally stepping in central areas would benefit from the 63 year old’s system.
Rangnick allows his fullbacks to push forward, creating a 2-4-4 shape while attacking. He likes to create overloads in wide areas and use numerical advantages to make things happen with the help of his narrow attacking structure. The German has been on record saying he doesn’t like square passes much and focuses a lot on being direct and exploiting the spaces by having runners in behind and constant positional rotation. This ideology would suit mainly 3 players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. The Portuguese superstars are known for their ‘high risk, high reward’ approach and Paul Pogba always likes to make things happen and use the runners in his team to spread passes and flex his creative muscles.
All in all, it is fair to say that Manchester United’s squad would suit Ralf Rangnick’s ideologies very well. There are question marks being raised on how Cristiano Ronaldo would play as he’s not suited to a gegenpress style of play but considering Rangnick’s history and his tactical acumen, it wouldn’t be a stupid thing to assume that the 63 year old would have a plan to integrate Manchester United’s #7.
Assuming everyone is fit and available for selection, we can see David de Gea continuing in goal with a back 4 for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. Scott McTominay and Fred would act as the 2 defensive midfielders, but it is possible we can see van de Beek and Paul Pogba being used there with McTominay or Fred against weaker oppositions. Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes would be the obvious choices to play in the flanks as the inside right and inside left creative midfielders/wingers. Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek are capable replacements on the flanks respectively, similar to how Marcel Sabitzer was deployed on the right despite him being a midfielder. At Leipzig, Yusuf Poulsen played as the target man or the deep lying forward while Timo Werner was a menace with his lines behind the line of defence and his pressing. We could see Marcus Rashford playing the Werner role while Cristiano Ronaldo plays the Poulsen role. Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani being more than capable replacements for the roles respectively.
“Tactics, fitness and rules are all hugely important, but they’re only a means to an end. My job – the job – is to improve players.
Players follow you as a manager if they feel that you make them better. That’s the greatest, most sincere motivation there is.”
-Ralf Rangnick, The Coaches’ Voice
This is how the Red Devils will line up under Ralf Rangnick:
In conclusion, Manchester United have enough depth and enough quality in the side to cater to Ralf Rangnick’s plans. His high-pressing, counter-pressing, direct style of play would suit most of the players Manchester United have at their disposal and if he is able to get his ideas across quickly, Manchester United can flourish during the time he is at the helm as manager.
Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director
Now that we have seen what Ralf Rangnick brings to the table as a manager, let’s dive into what he could bring to the table as a consultant/sporting director.
Ralf Rangnick took his post as the sporting director of the clubs under the RedBull group in 2012, namely RB Leipzig, RB Salzburg and New York Red Bulls. He left his post as the manager of Salzburg to focus solely on as the sporting director of both the clubs. He made a return to management with RB Leipzig twice, first in 2015 when he guided them to a promotion in 15/16 and then in 18/19 where he managed to finish 3rd in the Bundesliga, proving that he can do both roles very well.
Ralf Rangnick oversaw the huge footballing success of the RedBull group of football clubs with both Leipzig and Salzburg coming from nowhere and then being regular outfits in European football in a very short period of time. In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, Rangnick said, “Can I be somebody who can influence areas of development across the whole club?’ Otherwise you are only getting half of what I am capable of.” He got that freedom at RedBull clubs and they have flourished under him. He got the same freedom at Hoffenheim, where he converted them from a third-tier Bundesliga team to a regular top flight team and laid the foundations for Julian Nagelsmann, who took Hoffenheim as far as the Champions League. “Ralf has a special way of looking at football,” Nagelsmann told ESPN in 2020. “I used Ralf’s philosophy at Hoffenheim; counter-pressing is a very important topic.”
Even though Rangnick’s first role as a sporting director came in 2012, at Hoffenheim he was already a manager + sporting director. He took the job when Hoffenheim were in the third division, even after having achieved great success with Schalke in the Bundesliga where he achieved a 2nd placed finish. It was later reported that the 63 year old wanted more control over the club’s decisions which led to a crossroads with the board. Dietmar Hopp, the chairman of Hoffenheim and the co-founder of tech giants SAP was keen to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga as soon as possible and he chose Ralf Rangnick to be the person to help Hoffenheim achieve that.
Rangnick likes to have a hands-on approach on how the clubs he is managing should function. He likes to control many aspects, the scouting, the recruitment, the way the club travels. At Schalke, he wasn’t given that freedom but at Hoffenheim he was given a clean slate to leave his mark. The German brought in Bernhard Peters, a former hockey coach, as the head of performance. His input on player performances, fitness levels and his analysis on the team tactics was very crucial for Hoffenheim’s first season under Rangnick’s leadership in 2006-07, when they achieved promotion to the 2.Bundesliga. Rangnick also brought in Hans-Dieter Hermann, a sports psychologist from Jürgen Klinsmann’s 2006 World Cup team, having his request for a psychologist previously rebuffed by the Schalke board.
In the 2.Bundesliga, Rangnick established his transfer policy. Establishing a worldwide scouting network and recruiting players with age on their side. Most of the signings were under the age of 23, mainly foreigners and many of them being from Brazil. Brazilians like Luiz Gustavo and Carlos Edouard were signed while Demba Ba came from the Belgian league and Chinedu Obasi, from Norway showing the vast scouting network put in place by the 63 year old. The same philosophy and structure TSG Hoffenheim still uses after being established as a top-flight club in Germany.
“Did we get Ribéry? Never! For us, it is ideal that we don’t sign players who are already playing at a higher level than us, but rather want to go there [the higher level] with us. I want players for whom a move to us is not a step backwards. We are convinced that all the guys we brought in last year – Vorsah, Eduardo, Gustavo, Ba, Obasi, Nilsson – were not only good for promotion, but also for the first division.”
In fact, this is a philosophy Rangnick would follow during his tenure with the RedBull clubs. Instead of splashing millions on star players, the German focused on signing players who are young and who will develop along with the club. His recruitment at the club proves his eye for talent and his wide scouting network, something Manchester United could benefit largely from. His shrewd recruitments include players such as Tyler Adams, Matheus Cunha, Emil Forsberg, Amadou Haidara, Naby Keita, Willi Orban, Yussuf Poulsen, Timo Werner, some of the most exciting youngsters in the world. Rangnick believes in developing the players and making them improve so that the club improves along with them.
How would this be beneficial for Manchester United? Well, for years, Manchester United are a club which has lacked an identity, a direction. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have followed their manager’s lead in terms of recruitment and signings and changes to the club in the background. That would have been fine if all the managers they have hired were of the same mould but that was not the case at Old Trafford. Quite the opposite. Manchester United went from David Moyes, to Louis van Gaal, to Jose Mourinho. 3 managers with completely different ideologies on football, which led to the club constantly ‘rebuilding’ whenever a manager was sacked.
If we look at all the top clubs in Europe, all have a certain identity, a certain philosophy that they follow in order to be successful. Ajax being the best example for this. The dutch club have a certain way of playing football and their use of academy and being able to churn out the best talents in world football known to everyone. The managers and squad may change but their philosophy and identity remain the same. They hire managers who believe in the same philosophy as the club. Anything can happen in this world, but Diego Simeone becoming the manager of Ajax in future has a very low probability of happening due to the said philosophy of possession-oriented style of play being in place at the club.
Not just Ajax, all the top clubs in Europe have an identity. Bayern’s identity of playing fast paced attacking football, Liverpool’s brand of heavy-metal, heavy pressing brand of football since Klopp came in or even the identity Pep Guardiola has installed at Manchester City. Every decision these clubs take are in accordance with a pre-defined philosophy at the club, something which has eluded Manchester United for some time. Now, following a philosophy or an identity is not necessary at all, but for a club who have been as wayward as Manchester United in recent times, this is something which would benefit the Red Devils a lot.
Since Solskjaer came in, he tried to do the same. Install an identity at the club which the club can follow long after his departure. Appointments of John Murtough as the football director and Darren Fletcher as the technical director were one of the first few steps the Norwegian took to implement his vision at taking the club to the next level. It didn’t work out for Solksjaer towards the end, but he built the building blocks for the next chapter in this club’s history and Ralf Rangnick is the one who can complete writing it.
Even though his title is as a ‘consultant’, it is widely reported that the German will have a lot of influence on many decisions the club makes such as choosing his own successor and other off the pitch decisions regarding recruitment policy, potential future signings and even changes to the training ground. Rangnick’s influence, with the input of Murtough and Fletcher, could help Manchester United oversee a change towards building a long term footballing philosophy.
Ralf Rangnick’s appointment feels like a first great step Manchester United have taken towards building a long-term philosophy at the club, something they have lacked since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Judging by the German’s track record of improving and building clubs from scratch, it seems like a very wise choice.
Hoffenheim gave him the keys, and he built a fortress. Leipzig gave him the keys, and he built a kingdom. Now he has the keys to Manchester United, time will tell if he can build a dynasty.