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Radical Ralf: An overview of a football revolutionary and what he brings to Manchester United

An extensive piece on Rangnick, his methodology, and personal and institutional revolutions within football...

Schalke 04 - Training & Press Conference Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

A German pioneer is now with a brand that has lost its identity. We’re not talking about Werner Herzog in Disney’s The Mandalorian. Radical Ralf is Manchester United manager. An interim manager but a manager, nevertheless. There’s no need for a series on managerial candidates anymore.

Sky Sports pundit and former Liverpool player Jamie Carragher – fresh off a verbal spar with Roy Keane — has gone on record multiple times this season stating that the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo was better for the Premier League than Manchester United. Some might harbour similar feelings about the appointment of Ralf Rangnick.

If you’re a football fan, this is a mouthwatering prospect. Let’s find out if that’s the case if you’re a Manchester United fan.

Professor, Pioneer, and Philosopher. But is he a Practitioner?

He didn’t always have a burgeoning reputation.

You’ve probably watched this clip already while conducting your own research on the new manager. What you probably aren’t aware of is the backlash this led to in Germany in 1998 and why it’s Ragnick’s great regret. The Swabian was derided as “The Professor” within the German football industry for many years.

Here’s an excerpt from Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot:

Many within English media are doing the same now and there’s a misguided apprehension from many United fans as well.

This is more a case of timing. In Germany, the sweeper system had been immortalized by Franz Beckenbauer. Its legacy lived on through the ‘90s with Lothar Matthaus and Matthias Sammer. As Raphael Honigstein puts it in many of his books on German football, clichés like ‘character’ and ‘wanting it more’ made up for large parts of the post-match analysis.

Remind you of a former United captain who masquerades as a pundit? This was a time where the individual was regarded above the collective.

When Rangnick appeared on the television show, he was suggesting otherwise and was seen as a bit of an eccentric for his advocacy of zonal marking, ball-oriented pressing and the use of a back-4 without a sweeper.

Rangnick wasn’t alone here. His great friend and confidant Helmut Gross came before him. Lastly, the man Jurgen Klopp has credited as his greatest influence, Wolfgang Frank (Klopp’s manager at Mainz), was the other figure to lead this silent revolution through the lower divisions in Germany in the ‘90s.

This silent revolution had trickled its way upwards and by 2005, Klopp had followed his mentor Frank’s footsteps. He had taken up management himself and entered the German consciousness through the television medium but with his reputation enhanced, unlike Rangnick.

Here’s another excerpt from Das Reboot:

There’s a sense that the adoration for Klopp and the success that has followed him and some of Rangnick’s other mentees like Thomas Tuchel has been used against Rangnick in recent weeks.

Some have even compared him to the obsessive figure of Marcelo Bielsa but this wouldn’t be an accurate comparison. Klopp’s former manager Wolfgang Frank would be the closest analogue to the Argentine.

Rangnick’s many lectures that can be found on YouTube make it clear that he’s an eloquent personality with none of the quirks that have come to define him in recent weeks or in the ‘90s by the German press.

It’s true that Ralf Ragnick hasn’t been as involved in management in the last decade after suffering from burnout during his second stint at Schalke but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that management is something he still identifies with and is good at. This is not some great thinker who has failed at executing his ideas. He managed RB Leipzig for the whole of 2018/19, had them comfortably finish the league season in third place and marshalled them to the DFB Pokal final. That wasn’t too long ago.

And that’s what he’ll be judged on in the comings months. It won’t just be the players that’ll have to buy into his methods. The fans are going to be just as important.

Tweaking the United Way

During Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign, much of the discourse surrounded United’s identity and how Solskjaer was on a mission to rescue it. The more one dug into this, it became increasingly clear just how vague the idea of the ‘United Way’ is. For more on that, read this.

United’s storied history has only ever seen three resounding managerial successes with two visionaries shaping the club’s modern identity. Their shadow still looms over the club but their ideas and vision left with them. There isn’t a singular motif that permeates these eras of success. United have tried to find the signs in the post-Ferguson era and mostly failed.

David Moyes was the one with Scottish roots. Louis van Gaal was the one with a penchant for youth. Jose Mourinho was the serial trophy winner. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the one who recognized United’s values. They all have some of the qualities of the great men they were following but reducing United to any of those characteristics was always folly.

Rangnick doesn’t offer any direct link to United. He’s a true outsider. If he’s to be accepted at United, the route is far easier cause it comes from the actual football that his teams play and United fans should be excited by that. The football his teams have historically played could potentially supersede every other vague value linked to Manchester United. Rangnick’s football can be reduced to a feeling.

A 23-year-old Rangnick had this great epiphany when working as a player coach for sixth division FC Viktoria Backnang in February 1983. His world changed when legendary manager Valeriy Labonovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev team happened to drop by near his training centre.

Here’s how Ragnick remembers the moment:

Rangnick’s been trying to recreate that feeling since and it’s a terrifying prospect for any side that enters Old Trafford if he can replicate it here even if it’s just for six months.

We’ve seen glimpses this season with full crowds in games against Leeds and Newcastle. United only need a few waves of attacks to kill a game. The stadium can leave the opposition giddy and alone. Rangnick will have to tap into that. It might take a few months to fully form but with most managers who identify strongly with a style, parts of it’ll be evident from day one.

To do that, the players remain key.

Let’s take care of the elephant in the room first, shall we?

This is Helmut Gross from Jonathan Harding’s Mensch:

It’s clear that Rangnick and others who follow his principles differ from the likes of Ancelotti, who had a difficult time at Bayern Munich with his laissez-faire approach that bears similarities to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s. The strange thing with Ancelotti is that he actually played under Arrigo Sacchi — the manager most of the pioneers of gegenpressing look to as their greatest influence.

There’s also the little revelation on Cristiano Ronaldo here, who has been a lightning rod for United’s poor form since his arrival. Ronaldo almost seems the antithesis of everything Rangnick stands for. Of course, big players can buy into new methods. That’s what Xavi, Iniesta, and others were for Guardiola. Gullit and Rijkaard were the same for Sacchi but this does look a bit tricky.

Now, if Ragnick was at the helm in the summer and had to make a decision on signing Ronaldo, the chances are he’d pass and it perhaps suggests why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was unlikely to ever be the right man for the job.

Of course, dropping a 36-year-old Ronaldo is unlikely to be cause for outrage in the way Beckham was for Fergie and Ronaldinho was for Guardiola because Ronaldo’s arrival has already been discussed broadly within the media as a negative in some circles. It wouldn’t come as a shock but Rangnick obviously does not have the clout within the fanbase that Fergie and Guardiola did.

He can only earn that with results in the short term and the busy schedule will likely help with rotation. Michael Carrick’s decision to drop the Portuguese international at Stamford Bridge seemed to betoken Ragnick’s United.

Rangnick has also worked with another Madrid legend in Raul during his time at Schalke. Raul played most of the games during his time at Schalke but their relationship had soured by the time Rangnick’s tenure had come to an end, with the Spaniard labelling his methods unbearable. Heliocentric attacks have not been a theme in any of Ragnick’s previous tenures and have often been one of the primary sources of conflict.

But this isn’t only about Ronaldo. Many of the other elder statesmen could be put on sale in January and the younger ones will have to fall in line quickly or face the wrath. There are already rumours of Amadou Haidara’s arrival and players will have to be put on sale to achieve that.

Of course, Rangnick’s trophy cabinet isn’t going to validate his methods but his style has been highly successful on the European stage in recent years and winning the argument might be enough to convince the gaggle of stars at United that his way is the best way forward.

The last three winners of the Champions League have been German and have favoured a pro-active pressing game. In Flick and Tuchel, you have two managers who like Rangnick took over underperforming teams halfway through the season.

Most of the players will be well aware of this and because the current United side doesn’t have many players with bags of silverware or been on the receiving end of tactical input of this kind since playing for the club, they’ll likely be more willing to adapt to his methods. There’ll also be some desperation to turn the season around.

If we go a bit deeper into what changes United will see in recent weeks, the formations seem secondary. Rangnick’s stated in many of his interviews that formations aren’t that important and players can pick up his methods. In his final season, Leipzig played many different formations from the 4-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1 to the 3-5-2. At Hoffenheim, he mostly preferred a 4-3-3.

They’re just different solutions. Helmut Gross puts it succinctly in Mensch:

Yussuf Poulsen was not a target man before joining Leipzig. Mason Greenwood could maybe be turned into one as this is a profile that seems very important in a Rangnick team and United don’t seem to have one. Paul Pogba could be an option for those long passes from the left-wing/midfield role.

Most of the forward players at United aren’t willing pressers and they’ll have to change that under Rangnick but he’s also got a history of bringing that out of players, including two of the fabled Liverpool front-3. Some players like Fred, Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani seem tailor-made for his system but just need a bit of direction to turn those bursts into something more cohesive.

Centre-backs who don’t offer a lot of recovery pace shouldn’t have to be too worried either. Mats Hummels was the rock at the back for Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund side and Willy Orbán was the same for Rangnick’s Leipzig.

David De Gea’s distribution shouldn’t be a problem for now since Rangnick prefers the longer kicks but his sweeping ability and inability to engage on set-pieces could come into question. The younger players are likely to benefit the most from Rangnick’s arrival.

He’s also not all about the off-the-ball work. He’s revealed that his time at Ulm was 20% on-the-ball work but it was very different at Leipzig where that figure went up to 70%. You’re likely to see quick passes and a narrow shape. The full-back situation, especially at right-back, will be quite fascinating since they’ve provided the width for most of his sides.

Having looked up nearly every available game on footballia from the 2018/19 season, it’s clear that his sides heavily base their pressing scheme on the opposition. In certain games, his sides would go as far as pressing the goalkeeper but there were other games where the triggers were a bit deeper. The sort of performative pressing United fans witnessed in the 5-0 loss to Liverpool will not be a feature anymore.

Top-4 seems within reach with a favourable fixture list to build up a head of steam. The team should be in Rangnick’s image by the time the Champions League knockouts start.

Let’s now look at what could be in store after the interim period and what many believe will be his most important contribution to the club.

What if he wants it full-time?

That’s quite unlikely. He was asked a similar question regarding his role at the Red Bull clubs — where he had to flit between manager and sporting director — by Ben Lyttleton for issue number 16 of the Blizzard magazine

This is a message he has relayed in many of his interviews. He seems quite self-aware because of his experience in both roles and it really does feel like he’ll move to a consultancy role. Just how much of a say he’ll have is up in the air right now but he does not seem like someone who wants to manage and attend to all the media duties that a club like United will demand of him. He seems happier behind the scenes.

In Red Bull, he’s worked with a giant corporation and will be well aware of the scrutiny United have faced for its corporate identity in recent years. There aren’t too many people more qualified to work around that and give the club a strong footballing identity that goes right through the academy and every other football department.

It’s not clear if the scouting network at the Red Bull clubs will still be available to him. At the Red Bull clubs, he had an 18-23 policy when it came to recruitment. At United, that might change since players are looking to play through their peak years at a club of this size. He’s likely to have some hand in changing the wage structure and killing the warped logic that has led to contracts for players who are out of favour since Fergie’s retirement.

There’s also the question of appointing a successor and if the two main candidates in Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag will fit. Pochettino and Ten Hag are known for their counter-pressing game and Rangnick’s interim period should serve as a great trial period before a successor is appointed.

The on-ball styles seem to be more characteristic of Pochettino’s team. Ten Hag’s sides do like their wide players, which might be a bit of a shift. Ten Hag has also claimed that his style is quite German, with assistant coach Alfred Schreuder (formerly of Hoffenheim with Julain Nagelsmann) being a testament to that.

Of course, if Rangnick had it his way, he’d try to get Thomas Tuchel or Julian Naglesmann to Old Trafford. It’s clear from their style of play that Rangnick doesn’t mind variations to his ideas and almost welcomes it when speaking of his protegees.

Klopp’s Liverpool is the gourmet version of the gegenpressing ideal and United’s resources should make it a reality but trust between the fanbase and United’s most important stakeholders is as low as it’s ever been.

The hope will be that his arrival leads to something akin to Cruyff’s at Barcelona. United may have stumbled upon Ralf Rangnick but this is the most interesting appointment the club has made since Ferguson’s in 1986 and seeing it unravel will be one of the stories of the football season. We shall know soon enough if Ralf will wreck it, unwreck it, or if wrecking it had become necessary.