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Can Ralf Rangnick build a system at Manchester United independent of the man himself?

There’s a long build ahead, but if done right it could be a seismic shift in the way the club is run from top to bottom...

Manchester United v BSC Young Boys: Group F - UEFA Champions League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

The Ralf Rangnick era has begun at Manchester United. The German, so influential in the rise of gegenpressing, faces the toughest challenge of his career in taking charge of possibly the most high profile job in club football. It is a job that demands quite a lot, and comes with even more scrutiny and unpacking every step of the way. And if he is to succeed it will be a different success story to those of his predecessors. Rangnick’s influence at the club may not even reach it’s heights with him on the touchline, and he could set the stage for others to follow him as manager and reach greater achievements in the process. If he succeeds, Rangnick could be the first to establish structure in the club independent of the man in charge of it.

When Manchester United officially announced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s departure, emphasis was placed on not referring to it as a sacking because of the club’s wish to keep his status as a beloved and appreciated figure within the club intact. That should be the case as Solskjaer is a club legend regardless of his managerial tenure, and scored arguably the most significant goal in the history of the club. It should also be the case because more than any other manager post-Sir Alex Ferguson, Solskjaer made a positive impact on the club’s teambuilding and culture. His players liked him til the end, as did most of the fans, and his emotional connection to the club and its culture was an important part of his managerial tenure. When it ended it felt worse than the failures of other managers before him because of his connection to the club. Many fans were desperate to see him succeed because of his legacy status, and he presented an image of what most fans remember the club to be, but never cracked the code to consistently show it on the pitch. Like many before him, Solskjaer was the centerpiece of the club’s overall strategy, and when he left so did the sense of identity.

Enter Ralf Rangnick, whose footballing identity transcends his own career and is reflected in multiple managers and clubs. This hasn’t been the case at Manchester United, maybe ever? Certainly no manager since Sir Matt Busby has established a club structure that operated without themselves at the center of it, and to be fair it worked well enough a couple of times to cement the club’s legend in the history of the game. But when it comes time to move on the method has rarely brought sustained success. That is the mission of Rangnick, and what he offers has the potential to remove the necessity for a singular great man at the helm.

With Rangnick comes a new approach, one which will (hopefully) bring institutional change to the club that has so often relied heavily on an individual at the helm, a method the club has tried since 1945 to remarkably different levels of results. Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson are the only two to have won league titles or the Champions League/European Cup in that time, and though some others found cup success they never quite introduced the sort of cult of personality along with sustainability to the club. None of that is really Rangnick’s style. He will be important no doubt in changing the methods of footballing and training at the club, and could establish a system that removes the necessity of strong personalities as the basis of the club’s culture. Of course there will be the stars on the pitch, but they will have to be a part of the system if they are to stick around. Perhaps more importantly, if successful in establishing his system Rangnick could smooth over transition between managers in the future, something almost inevitable in modern football but which Manchester United have notoriously struggled with.

Rangnick is different from the others because in the past his system has been to bring other minds and directors into the club as well, creating sustainability as well as stability. He is meant only to be the first new mind of hopefully many that will influence decision making, and if his role beyond interim boss is as impactful as it has been at other clubs he could open the door for some of the brightest minds in football at multiple levels of the club’s structure.

This would be a far cry from anything we’ve seen at Old Trafford before, and could even lessen the pressure on the big job if done right. United’s clinging to the past was unfortunately personified in Solskjaer, and for several reasons, it failed. The pressure around Solskjaer was immense, and at times has led to debate over the fairness and harshness of criticism levelled against him. A manager can only be responsible for so much, but at Manchester United the manager is responsible for so much, in both practice and public image. That will be something Rangnick will have to deal with as well for the time being, and he’ll be on a much larger stage than he’s ever seen in his career. This is a supporter base that wants the emotional connection to the club, a connection that the club itself has consciously fed and manipulated at times. Fans want the connection between past and present.

The kind of change Rangnick will want to bring will be radical, which is why it’s worth a shot. His most successful past projects reaped the rewards even after his departure, which could mean frustration for the time being as he builds. It may not fit the memory of what Manchester United football should be, but if it works it means winning again, which is very much the part of the past that made fans desperate to hold onto it. The kind of football he wants to play is supposed to be fun and calculated at it’s best, and the structure of it goes beyond first team recruitment.

Building will take time, and it may cost the club the services of players fans have come to love if they cannot adapt to the system. Change is hard, but very necessary at Manchester United, and Rangnick certainly offers change. It will likely be very frustrating at times, and results this season will reflect growing pains as well as any positives that come. What good may come may only arrive when Rangnick is looking on from the Directors’ Box alongside John Murtough and Richard Arnold. He has his work cut out for him, and dealing with the board and the Glazers will be easier said than done, but when it comes time to judge Rangnick’s work at United it may be necessary to look far beyond the technical area in order to do so.