TThe Premier League has just become more interesting. Ralf Rangnick, who is to be appointed Manchester United’s interim manager and then as a club consultant after Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s departure, has already had a successful influence on English football: his belief in quick transfers has influenced Jürgen Klopp, and he was a mentor to Thomas Tuchel and gave him his first coaching job (as Stuttgart’s youth coach).
Now, after a long flirtation with the English game – Rangnick was close to the England job in 2016 and on roles at Everton in 2019 and Chelsea last season – comes the opportunity to make his mark on a team. And there comes a stamp, because with Rangnick, it always comes back to identity. He has a clear playing style that he demands of his teams. He has said that all of Europe’s top coaches “know what their football looks like”. For the first time in several years, United may finally be able to say the same thing.
The Rangnick style started in 1983 when he was the player manager of Viktoria Backnang in the sixth division. His team lost a friendly match before the season to Dynamo Kyiv. Rangnick could not get over the Dynamo press and was convinced that they posed with three extra players. It formed the basis of his philosophy, later honed by Hoffenheim, which he took from Germany’s third division to the Bundesliga’s top seven.
Its focus, aided by an early application of analysis, was on aggressive pressure, direct and vertical passes, numerical superiority in key areas and more sprints to win the ball back. His playing principles, he told the International Football Arena Conference, include: “You have to dictate the game with and without the ball, not through individuals … use transitions, change quickly … to think and find the right solutions quickly … and shoot within 10 seconds of winning the ball back. “
This identity suited RB Leipzig and its Red Bull owner brand even better. As coach and then football director, he reduced the team’s average age from 29 to 24 and took them from Germany’s second division into the Champions League, where they reached the semi-finals in 2020. Rangnick ended up as head of sports and development across the Red Bulls four football teams. One of his hallmarks that included a succession planning policy so that every coach who leaves (usually for better things) is replaced smoothly and without change in playing style. It sounds so obvious, but is still rare. Rangnick has become a buzzword for tactical influence and talent development in Germany and has even taken credit for the national team’s World Cup success in 2014.
The 63-year-old is passionate about improving his players, and not just by helping them run faster or kick harder for the ball. “The greatest untapped potential lies in the football player’s brain,” Rangnick told me when I interviewed him for my book Edge: Leadership Secrets from Football’s Top Thinkers.
Rangnick was one of the first coaches to hire video analysts and sports psychologists to help his team gain an advantage. “Mentality relates to the effort you put in,” he continued. “Are you hungry? Are you willing to submit anything to get better? Do you want to improve yourself every day? Do you live in a professional way? Are you resistant to things like nightclubs or drinking? Do you need a big car or other things? to your ego? If you do not have the right mentality, you can forget all about the inherited talent that is in your DNA and what you have learned from others. It does not help. It does not help. It does not matter how talented a player is, if the mentality is shit, then forget it.
“We compare the development of our players [at Red Bull] to a 1,000-piece jigsaw. We try to offer all these 1,000 pieces to every player and it is up to them to use them in the dimension they want. We try to have all the relevant aspects of football development in our portfolio. We want the best possible support staff to develop the players. ”
Rangnick compared his role as a coach to a salesperson trying to convince a skeptical customer. “That’s what coaches are!” he grinned. “They have to give the players a reason to get up for training every morning, and to do that they take advantage of what drives them as individuals.”
He may be a tough taskmaster, but has a real warmth. “Modern leadership is about being convincing and creating a motivational basis so that the players every day will want to come in and get better. This is about trust and empathy and human relationships.”
Words like philosophy and identity may seem like corporate buzzwords, but when it comes to United, they hit a nerve. Rangnick has previously warned against a change of coach that requires a whole new approach to playing style, crew and recruitment. This has been the United way since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013.
Rangnick knows it takes time to change a club’s setup. He understands why clubs that have not experienced another model are hesitant. His United deal includes a consultative contract of at least two years to prevent the club from repeating past mistakes. The irony is that three years after United started looking for a football director, they have landed on one of the best in the game and have appointed him as manager. His most important work for United may come when this season is over.