Ralf Rangnick against the Manchester United machine: is it a masterstroke?
This mouthwatering prospect is arguably the most radical managerial appointment the Premier League has seen
Day one. Ralf has entered the chat. There will be a note of relief about the news, announced on Monday morning via a club release, that Manchester United have formally appointed their latest interim manager, follow-up to the previous interim-to-permanent, who was in turn replaced by the previous interim, who has been replaced now by the current interim.
First things first. Ralf Rangnick is a great “get” for United’s executive tier. The annual Premier League sacking season is not soundtracked by gruff-voiced middle men pinging the phones of Premier League CEOs saying things like: “Ralf is very, repeat very, interested.” Rangnick is above all an ideologue. He has to like, and believe in, the thing you’re offering.
But his appearance now does raise two important points. First, how is it possible for this vast global brand, this huge public commercial entity, to be so appallingly random in its recruitment of its most important employee? Rangnick is United’s fifth semi-permanent manager in eight years. At least José Mourinho and Louis van Gaal had something – arrogance, the past, angry pronouncements – in common. The lurch from Ole-era United to Rangnick’s academic stylings has a kind of Partridge TV pitch element to it: arm-wrestling with William Shatner, gegenpressing with Cristiano Ronaldo, Phillip Schofield talks Chekhov.
Which is all fine, and quite predictable. But there is also the second thing about Rangnick’s arrival. Never mind how they got here. Cut away the noise. This is a genuinely mouthwatering prospect. Much depends on how much influence he manages to wield. But in terms of scale and methods Rangnick to United is arguably the most radical managerial appointment the Premier League has seen.
It is Rangnick’s personality as much as his background that makes this such a startling turn. There has already been a great deal of poring over his familiar lines, quotes and quips in the last few days. What emerges from that patchwork is a slightly comedic figure, something along the lines of Evelyn Waugh’s German modernist architect professor Otto Silenus, who sees human beings as flawed mechanical designs, who says things such as “the only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines not men”. Going by his pre-publicity it would be no surprise to see Rangnick take his first press conference standing motionless behind a synthesiser wreathed in dry ice and mumbling about being a robot.
Except, of course, he is in reality a coach who feels this sport passionately, who sees coaching and theory as a kind of intellectual calling. Rangnick has been called the godfather of modern German pressing football, but his own chief influence came from further east. “We didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe the things that were happening on the pitch. But we did know that this was the future.” Rangnick has described his first sight of Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv, in February 1983, on the Coaches’ Voice website. He was managing FC Viktoria Backnang in the sixth tier of West German football when Dynamo came to play a friendly. “A few minutes in,” Rangnick recalled, “I had to stop and count their players. Something was wrong. Did they have 13 or 14 men on the pitch?”
Lobanovskyi, with his concrete jowls, his worker’s cap, had been a decorated colonel in the Red Army. He built the wonderful USSR teams of 1986 and 1988, pioneered the use of pre-modern computers in football, the obsessing over numbers, metrics, distances run, seeing players as mobile fluid human units. Kyiv were the first team Rangnick saw “systematically press the ball”. His own mixed and varied sporting life has been lived in pursuit of that lightbulb moment, chasing that feeling, and notable for his ability to inspire and illuminate others the same way.
This is Rangnick’s obsession, not cups or trophies, but shapes and space and systems. Likes: team play, theory, old dead silent Soviet-era geniuses. Dislikes: ego, star players, inefficiencies. And now here he is at Old Trafford. Hmm. How’s this going to work out?
And it is here that his appointment at a club that has been run so aggressively, and so clumsily, as a commercial machine becomes fascinating. It isn’t hard to see the potential for disaster. What is the worst possible thing you can do with Rangnick? How about hurling him into a mid-season rescue job at a hysterically hungry league at a club obsessed with its own marketing arm? Welcome, Mr Process, to a place where there is no process. Now get to work.
There is also something slightly grim about United reaching out for Ralf, scrabbling for the nearest “thoughts guy” when branding and celebrity have failed. We lack a culture. We lack a vision. Let’s go and buy one. Let’s take this careful, disciplined thing and apply it to this sloppy, careless, cash-drunk thing. Maybe one will overwhelm the other. Who knows which?
And yet, for all that there is every reason to believe this could turn out to be a masterstroke.
Rangnick’s job here, his role, is simply to be Rangnick: to instil discipline, a system, small but simple improvements. There is so much low-hanging fruit here, a group of players, a club that is crying out not just for his tactical smarts but for a kind culture-management. Rangnick is not a “cold” figure in that sense. He has two sons the same age as his players. He wants to understand how these players think and work, how they can be happy.
“I see it as my duty to help them deal with all the temptations and the fake reality they’re faced with as young men making a lot of money.” It is a delicious prospect. United have so many players operating below capacity, so many lost-looking young men, ghosts in the machine. Rangnick loves bright, energetic, biddable footballers. What might he do with Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho? What other levels can he draw from that tier of vaguely spooked-looking regulars, a Fred, a Wan-Bissaka, a McTominay?
And in the end all of the obstacles Rangnick may face along the way seem to dissolve a little. The idea that English football is a strange new frontier is a little dated. Rangnick has personally influenced at least four of his fellow managers. This is not 1995. There are no secrets here.
Can United’s players learn new things now, adopt a system mid-season? Well, yes they can. Footballers absorb huge amounts of detail and planning between games in any case. It is part of the brief now to be flexible, to understands systems, to be tactically aware. If the players are willing, significant changes can be made. Ralf against the machine starts here.