Four games into Ralf Rangnick’s tenure as interim manager, the Daily Mail had published a concerning article on Manchester United’s off-field issues. The article highlighted that the players were struggling to adapt to the German’s late training sessions, some squad players were unhappy with their game time and some were struggling to fit into the new system.
Before going any further, let’s take a little detour to the past.
Here’s what someone who once had keys to Old Trafford had to say on double training sessions and modernizing the club:
“They had no lighting at United in the training complex. And by four o’clock in the afternoon, it was often really dark. Sometimes I wanted to train twice a day. So I had lighting installed there. The fields weren’t too good either. I gave it structure. They also didn’t have GPS, so I couldn’t measure everything. And to measure is to know, you need data to be able to interpret everything.”
“I told Mike, our wonderful cook, to start individualizing his meals. I had GPS installed and started training more. They were not used to that in England, training twice a day.”
“The problem was that they weren’t used to the training intensity and got injured as a result. That was a big dilemma because you need a certain fitness to play in my system, with a lot of pressure ahead. My fullbacks really run ninety minutes into a game. You can say afterwards that it was my error of judgment or that of the exercise physiologist that so many injuries occurred.”
Here’s what he had to say on his bloated inheritance:
“And another thing: we have 35 players! How can you form such a team? Soon fifteen people will be sitting on the bench.”
You should’ve guessed who this is by now but if you haven’t, this should make it clear:
“Again, you have to take into account that football is a fake world and that there are cultural dimensions. In Spain there is a mix of politics and sports, there they leak daily to the media. In Germany, it is all reasonably manageable. In England there are no privileges, the media there live on leaks, whole and half-truths. They can’t go anywhere, they don’t know anything. They go to the seventeenth player of a selection. The media can’t really do anything about that. But it is bad if you write things down from sources that are so far from the core.”These are excerpts from Louis van Gaal’s autobiography (everything here has been google translated from Dutch to English).
Time is a straight circle. The past and the present can’t be disentangled. History informs the present. United exist in a continuum. It’ll always get dark by 5 pm in Manchester. A club that’s expected to compete in all the competitions it participates in will always have a bigger squad than most others and keeping every member content will always be tricky. The English press has had a tradition of manufacturing and circulating falsehood since the days of Napolean.
History also informs the future but more on that later.
He’s an interim but some patience is required
The parallels are startling. Like Rangnick, Van Gaal had never managed in England before. He came with a reputation for playing a peculiar brand of football. Van Gaal’s ideals had been replaced, combatted and improved upon by the time he took the Manchester United job in football’s tactical tree but this was still a good manager. He was also setting the club up for a successor.
There are other parallels that don’t seem as obvious. If one were to go back to David Moyes’ first press conference, there are more references to Ferguson and upholding the club’s traditions than anything we ever saw under Solskjaer.
In essence, when Van Gaal joined the club, United’s reputation had taken a big dent under Moyes but the Scotsman didn’t attempt to make a seismic shift in the football operations that Van Gaal desired and the sort we’ll see from Rangnick’s appointment as interim and consultant.
Van Gaal and Rangnick also distinguish themselves from Solskjaer, Mourinho and Moyes when answering questions about winning big prizes (now top-4?). Solskjaer, Mourinho and Moyes almost always go to lengths about winning by any means and not following a holistic idea of football even though their means of communicating that might differ.
Van Gaal and Rangnick constantly suggest that they can’t control the result and that making big promises about the future is futile. The suggestion is that their methods are conducive to winning games and they’d like to get that across as quickly as possible. If they can’t, positive results will help them buy some time to do so eventually and that’s been the case so far for Ralf Rangnick.
Ralf Rangnick’s not done a spectacularly bad or good job by any means but there’s enough about his time to suggest that steps are being made to help the team now and in the future. He’s managed nine games, won five, drawn three and lost one.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over mid-season in 2018-19, he had some big wins in his unbeaten run and some bad losses towards the end. Neither was truly reflective of the team at the time. It’s why United finished in 6th place that season. Not 4th or 8th.
When Thomas Tuchel took over from Frank Lampard, Tuchel made it a point to question the Chelsea boardroom’s decision to appoint him since the underlying numbers were good under Lampard.
This was not the case when Rangnick took over. United had a negative expected goal differential before Rangnick’s arrival. It was a veritable crisis. The expected goal differential hasn’t been negative since he’s come in and a kinder fixture list helps but this was never likely to be a quick fix and is what steadying a ship feels like.
There have definitely been concerns since his arrival and every other media outlet has called attention to it but United have had some genuinely positive periods as well. United were excellent out of possession in Rangnick’s first game against Palace. Edinson Cavani’s substitution worked a treat against Newcastle. Bruno Fernandes has looked in good nick since the second half against Wolves.
The long switches from the wide players worked against Aston Villa in the FA cup but the wide players disappointed on the day and the central areas were too open. He’s since shored up the central areas by switching to a 4-3-3 and added Anthony Elanga to his set-up, who has impressed in the wider role. He’s also got a tune out of players who previously only played during the greatest of emergencies like Alex Telles, Diogo Dalot and Nemanja Matic.
He’s since learned that he’ll have to manage Nemanja Matic and Edinson Cavani’s minutes. He’ll soon learn that Scott McTominay might not be the long-term answer in the holding role despite having a very impressive display against Brentford, which might force him to reconsider the 4-3-3 in a few games time.
He’ll know that Brentford’s set-piece threat was great and that United need to do a better job of handling them in the coming games. United are taking steps under Rangnick. In two difficult away games, United have tried to play in the proactive manner that Rangnicks demands. This writer admits that it is probably easier to identify the good bits after watching all of RB Leipzig’s games from the 2018-19 season that were available on footballia.com.
The changes have been incremental. It’s going to be trial and error for a while but the intention will be to reduce what Rangnick calls the coincidence factor. He’s been getting closer to that with each week. United still have a shot at top-4. Fans will need to show some patience before his methods are in show for the full 90 but they should come soon.
But this piece isn’t really about Rangnick. Rangnick’s short stint at the club and the excerpt from Louis van Gaal’s autobiography are a prologue for what’s to come in the summer.
There is no messiah
It’s been clear for some time that there are two main candidates for the United job in the summer: Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag. There’s more on them from our managerial replacements series. Like Rangnick, they prefer a proactive style of football, have exaggerated training ground drills and have built their reputation on expansive and counter-pressing football.
The squad is likely to be gutted soon with the help of Rangnick, John Murthough and Darren Fletcher. Edward Woodward — the figurehead who bears the brunt of Van Gaal’s frustrations in the autobiography — is no longer there, we think. By Van Gaal’s admission, Ten Hag’s Ajax have more about them than his ‘90s side. Pochettino’s Spurs side were also part of the new wave. Better players will also be added to the side.
The succession plan should be smoother and the inertia from fans and the board that followed Van Gaal’s arrival shouldn’t be there anymore. The Fergie era hangover was too recent for any real change at the time and these players should be more receptive to change with little to show for in terms of silverware. Most of them haven’t had a manager with holistic ideas on football that are suitable for the day before Rangnicks’ arrival.
Despite that, Pochettino or Ten Hag’s ideas are unlikely to click into gear immediately. We might get the Spurs of Pochettino’s first season or the version of Ten Hag’s Ajax from the last two seasons. It’ll have some of the good signs but not all of them cause making players aware of and then getting them to apply new ideas will always take time. Most mainstream media and fans might not identify them immediately as has been the case with Rangnick’s United.
United are not going to get the version of Ten Hag’s Ajax from this season. It took four and a half years to build that. It should take less time at United but it’ll take time. United are not going to get the Spurs side under Pochettino that dominated Juventus over two legs in 2017/18, beat Real Madrid at Wembley or the one that hit 86 points in 2016/17.
Pep Guardiola’s record suggests he's a better manager than everyone mentioned in this piece. He inherited a better team in the blue side of Manchester in 2016/17. He had a preseason, sporting directors who were completely in sync with his ideas and a great transfer window but it wasn’t plain sailing in his first season. Some players might be perfect fits but suffer injuries. These things happen.
This isn’t going to be the final year of Solskjaer’s 4-year cycle. It’s going to be the start of a new one.