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Ralf Rangnick: The man who can read a room

The interim boss hasn’t helped the team in the short term, and has a limited long term role. So what has he done?

Arsenal v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

When Ralf Rangnick was hired as Manchester United’s Interim coach his job was to _______________?

Everything about Rangnick’s appointment was shrouded in ambiguity. Was his role to come in and establish a new system in hopes that it takes and he could be a long term option as a coach? Was he just supposed to “save the season” by any means neccessary and get United into the top four (which they were only three points out of)? Was it already acknowledged that a major rebuild was going to happen and his job should be assessing which players should be on their way out and which players - specifically the younger ones - had a future at the club?

Rangnick’s hiring was branded as a long term move as after his six month interim stint was done, he’d remain employed by United as a consultant for an additional two years. That itself is rather ambiguous. He’s not becoming a director of football, a president, or a director of anything. He merely agreed to be a consultant, a role that is nothing special. United have plenty of consultants (Ed Woodward was originally slated to remain as a consultant but that was idea was wisely nixed) and what Rangnick would be consulting on was never made clear.

Months later it wouldn’t be unfair to assume that ambiguity is exactly how Rangnick preferred it.

Rangnick’s appointment was met with great fanfare and optimism among the fanbase. Like many managers, Rangnick seems most concerned about how he himself is perceived, especially when the results on the pitch can’t be pointed at.

Managers are ultimately judged by results and Rangnick has not gotten them. United have won just 11 of 23 league matches under the German and one of five cup matches. Albeit one of those was a dead rubber, their one win came in a match in which they were heavily outplayed, and they went out of the FA Cup at home to a club in the Championship. Looking deeper at the numbers United’s non-penalty expected goal differential of +0.19 under Rangnick is a stark improvement to what they had under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, but it’s still nowhere close to the +0.34 and +0.36 United achieved last season and the year before respectively.

That ambiguity comes in handy here. It’s hard to say Rangnick is doing a bad job when you don’t quite know what his full job is. The best ability Rangnick has shown during his time at United has been the ability to read the room and act accordingly.

Rangnick knows that perception in football can often be more important than reality. His press conferences are a show and he knows it. He speaks clearly and intelligently, both things matter for perception. More importantly though is his ability to preach to the choir, he says things that fans want to hear. That goes a long way for stature among the fanbase. They’ll be quick to credit him for changes happening at the club and even quicker to take everything he says at face value. That some of the things he’s said raise some serious question marks is quickly forgotten.

Sources closer to the club than me have described Rangnick as a peripheral figure around the club. He had very little to do with United’s managerial search and subsequent hiring of Erik Ten Hag. He had no say in United moving on two of their leading scouts, that was a decision spearheaded by the new John Murtough and Darren Fletcher regime, but not announced until April for legal reasons, nor has he had anything to do with Chief Negotiator Matt Judge or Chief Strategy Officer Hemen Tseayo leaving the club. But that hasn’t stopped fans from heaping Rangnick with praise over the changes he’s “brought about.”

Rangnick recently came out and said he suggested to the board that United sign another attacker at the end of January, but the board replies with a very curt “no.”

The motivation behind Rangnick airing this dirty laundry is obvious. It makes him look good to the fan base - he wanted to sign someone - and paints the board as the bad guys. Overlooked is that the way Rangnick described the ordeal made it seem like there wasn’t much conversation between the board and Rangnick and that he wasn’t involved in the decision making process. If the board weren’t listening to him in January, what does that say about his future role as a consultant? How much influence would you really expect him to have? There can also be some alarm bells ringing that for a team that had Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Elanga, and a not-yet-injured Edinson Cavani Rangnick’s suggestion was “sign another forward” and not seeking any reinforcements in midfield. But it certainly makes him look good in the eyes of the fans.

There’s a lot of self preservation from Rangnick. He’s very liberal in assigning blame but nothing ever seems to be his fault. The scope of the job seems to have surprised him, even though anyone who did their due diligence could have seen this was a massive undertaking with the interim boss having very little chance of short term success.

While Rangnick may have vastly miscalculated the scale of the job, he has been very good at reading the room to know how he can still come out on top. If he can’t deliver results, at least give the fans everything else they want.

Fans bemoaned how United used to play with a double pivot, but even though Rangnick has totally given up on his own style of football he steadfastly refuses to play a double pivot, even if it arguably would gives United their best chance at getting a result.

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi used to say when a team wins the credit goes to the players for playing well and when a team loses the fault lies in the coaches for not creating a good enough game plan for their players. You could forgive a German PE teacher turned football coach for never having heard that line before, but Rangnick seems to have also never heard the phrase, when you point one finger at someone there’s three fingers pointing back at you.

Rangnick accepted a temporary job, therefore it’s perfectly within human nature to be thinking about what your next job will be (he has since accepted a new job). If you’re worried about your next job in football it wouldn’t be smart to come out and say I’m in over my head here and I couldn’t get the job done. Instead blame everyone else. Rangnick has identified who the popular villains are and has smartly veered the conversation in their direction. Keep the fans and the media on your side and your stock will remain high.

Many fans believed even last season that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was holding the team back, and when United made their singings last summer, a common narrative from fans and pundits was that they should have been competing for the title. When they weren’t clearly it was the managers fault. When the manager was sacked and the team didn’t improve, the fans and media shifted again, clearly it’s the players!

It didn’t take Rangnick long to see that attitude and immediately start playing into it. He’s been quick to blame the players for just about everything, which is exactly what the fans want to hear. He is overseeing United at a time when more players than ever are woefully out of form. And some of that is on the players, some of that is potentially on the previous regime for burning players out (though a quick counter argument to that is Liverpool operate a small squad and don’t look the least bit burnt out), but it’s also the managers job to put his players in the best situations for them to play their best. Rangnick does not do that.

He insists on playing a single pivot in midfield with a midfielder who doesn’t show for the ball, can’t pass when he has it, and his lack of spacial awareness is now a trigger point for opponents to attack. He continues to play with that single pivot despite the fact that it puts the back line under far more pressure then they can handle, setting them up for failure. He continues to use players that are simply not good enough and uses tactics that put them in situations that they have shown they are not good enough to handle. Bruno Fernandes has lately been deployed as a left winger or a more reserved number 8 rather than his best position as a number 10 (because that would force him to play a double pivot). Obviously he isn’t as effective there, so even when he has a good match (like against Norwich, 89% pass completion, just two turnovers, nine progressive passes, four passes into the area, but very little in the actual chance creation department) he draws the ire of fans.

Rangnick has drawn praise for “exposing” how much of a shambles the current squad is but frankly if someone couldn’t see that before Rangnick then that someone clearly wasn’t paying enough attention. Even last season it was painfully obvious to see United had holes in the squad, certain players holding them back, and other players who were vastly overrated. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put his head down and simply tried to grind out results using as much duct tape as possible to cover the holes. Eventually the holes got too big, they ran out of duct tape, and he seemingly gave up. Rangnick has opted to just do the same thing over and over again then hold his hands up and say “it’s not me.”

Rangnick arrived with the reputation as a tactical mind, the father of geggenpressing. But United don’t press under Rangnick, nor does it appear that they’re even well coached. Last Saturday against Brighton Graham Potter completely outclassed Rangnick from a tactical perspective and Rangnick had no answer. As yet another embarrassment under Rangnick played out, the fans sang “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” towards the players.

Frankly, when you have players that simply aren’t good enough, midfielders with no legs or ability to cover ground, and you’re being completely outclassed tactically, no amount of passion and effort is going to overcome that. And yet it’s all the players fault.

Rangnick has already made comments about the players not listening to his instructions and who can blame them? They listened when he first arrived but once he ditched his own style what credibility did he have? The backroom staff he’s brought in has no pedigree for winning in Europe and immediately failed to impress the players.

It’s not “unprofessional” for the players to tune out coaches they don’t believe in. You don’t make it being a professional athlete by listening to everyone. You make it by listening to the people who can take you to the next level. You’re less likely to step up for someone who won’t be here in a few months time, consistently puts you in bad situations, and then publicly blames you when things don’t go well.

Players don’t like getting called out publicly and what Ragnick is doing is no different than what Jose Mourinho was doing at the start of the 2018-19 season and it’s not at all surprising that the players are reacting on the pitch in the same fashion. The only difference between Rangnick and Mourinho is the tone they’ve used in their press conferences when airing their grievances, because as mentioned, Rangnick knows how important tone is.

The type of praise Rangnick is getting for publicly saying change needs to be made gives off the inclination that people genuinely believe that if a manager doesn’t say something publicly he hasn’t said anything at all. As if nothing gets said behind closed doors.

While that itself is a comical thought that doesn’t change the fact that it certainly has been refreshing to hear these things said out loud! But then again, words don’t really matter. As The Busby Babe editor Colin Damns said recently on The Busby Babe podcast; a lot of what Rangnick is saying about certain players not being good enough and needing to leave sounds awfully familiar to when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said “some players have played their last games in a United shirt” after the 4-0 loss to Everton in 2019.

And yet seven players who started in that 4-0 loss to Everton also started the 4-0 loss to Liverpool just weeks ago (likely would have been eight if Fred was fit). Six players who played in that match played in the 4-0 loss to Brighton. Words are nice, especially when it’s what you want to hear, but actions go much further.

Rangnick hasn’t said anything that isn’t already plainly obvious. Some of the players are in fact bad. Many of them shouldn’t be wearing United shirts. That’s not all on the players though. It’s not their fault they were signed over the course of many years of not having any cohesive strategy to sign similar players and play a system that harnesses all of their talents together - or that they’re just simply playing because the club haven’t signed anyone else in their position.

The board is bad, we’ve always known that. The owners are bad. We’ve known that too. Having a manager say that out loud isn’t going to cause the owners to suddenly decide to sell the club. What’s more likely is when looking for their next manager they’ll hire someone who doesn’t publicly say how much they suck (again, we don’t need someone to say it publicly. Everyone knows it).

So what exactly has Rangnick done? He hasn’t imposed his own style of play. He hasn’t brought about results. He hasn’t had any major input on the future of the club or their recruitment. He hasn’t been all that invested in the future of the club because while he’s promoted some academy players to train with the first team, he hasn’t actually put them on the pitch to see what they could do (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

He’s played players who aren’t good enough over and over so the world knows they aren’t good enough, but at the same time, he’s exposed himself as not quite being a good coach. That could turn out to be a much bigger negative because “wasn’t coached properly” is often used as a great excuse to give a player another chance!

What Rangnick has done is talk. He’s talked really well. When things stopped going his way he read the room excellently and realized this was the best route for himself to come out on top.

I don’t want to say Rangnick’s tenure here was ultimately a waste of time because I don’t blame Ralf Rangnick for not getting United to the Champions League. I don’t think anyone else would have, but don’t sell us on him having a long term commitment to the club when he’s always been a peripheral figure with an interim tag and vague job descriptions.

Ultimately Ralf Rangnick was nothing more than a glorified baby sitter. A baby sitter who figured out a way to make himself appear better than he was.