Having beaten Chelsea in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2011, we were drawn against German side Schalke in the semis. Our eventual opponents in the final, Barcelona, had the much trickier task of beating Real Madrid, so there was relief that we were playing a relatively obscure German side who we’d never faced before.
Schalke had finished 2nd in the Bundesliga in 2010, finishing just five points behind European giants Bayern Munich, then went on to finish top of their Champions League group the following season, then knocked out Valencia and holders Inter Milan before meeting us. While their performance in Europe was impressive, their league form had taken a massive hit and they were mid-table by the time we showed up at the Parkstadion for the first leg.
A couple of months earlier, Edwin Van der Sar had announced he would be retiring at the end of the season so all eyes were on the Schalke captain in goal, Manuel Neuer.
At full stretch, the German goalkeeper was able to stop an early deflected attempt from Wayne Rooney from flying in to the top corner, before denying Ryan Giggs from close range, then showing a strong hand to keep out Javier Hernandez, then Giggs again. If this was an audition, he was passing with flying colours, but that didn’t prevent our frustration at being denied a goal in a game we were totally dominating.
With over an hour played, Giggs finally broke the deadlock and Wayne Rooney confirmed the victory a couple of minutes later, setting up the home leg to be somewhat of a formality. United won 4-1 at Old Trafford with Antonio Valencia, Darron Gibson and Anderson all on the scoresheet. Eric Steele got his way and United signed David de Gea that summer instead of Neuer.
Like many United fans, with such focus on the goalkeeper, I hadn’t paid much attention to the opposition manager at the time, who had been keen for his press duties to come to an end after the game so he could share a glass of wine with Sir Alex Ferguson.
“He asked if we could have a drink together after the press conference – we’ll see how long this all takes!”
Rangnick only remained at Schalke for a few months after the United defeat, winning the German Cup after knocking out Bayern Munich in the semis, before beating German champions Borussia Dortmund, then managed by Jurgen Klopp, in the German Supercup. He stepped down claiming he didn’t have the “necessary energy to be successful”.
The following year he became the director of football for both Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig, and then became the manager of the latter, with them progressing from the fourth tier of German football to the Bundesliga during his time there, albeit with significant investment.
After stepping down as manager in 2019, Red Bull named Rangnick as their head of sport and development where he would oversee all global football initiatives for the array of clubs the company had taken over. This was when United first came in to contact with the coach who has been credited with the creation of ‘gegenpressing’. John Murtough travelled to Leipzig and was shown around by Rangnick.
The Athletic reports that Rangnick became aware that, as well as being interested in Red Bull football group’s strategy, that the club were interested in him, but nothing came of that at the time. He was certainly on United’s radar though, unbeknownst to many of us.
His name was mentioned on social media by several fans in the aftermath of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dismissal, but the general feeling was there was no way United would be capable of making such a sensible choice when it came to appointing an interim coach. There has been little to no forward planning in the managerial appointments and signings United have made since Ferguson’s retirement, so it’s understandable we’d have little hope of things changing now.
However, a reshuffling in the decision makers at the top, with Murtough being named football director earlier this year, and Darren Fletcher being appointed as technical director, may mean some order is being brought to the club.
The club statement in March revealed Murtough’s role would be to “align recruitment and other strategies”, as well as “create the structures, processes and culture to deliver sustained success on the pitch.”
Having a long-term view of the direction the club is going in should be the most basic of ways of running a football club but it is something United have been lacking with Ed Woodward. Rangnick is an appointment who can lay the foundations over the remaining season, before moving upstairs when someone whose comparable footballing philosophy can be given the job permanently. Erik tan Hag and Mauricio Pochettino both fit the bill here.
But these aren’t the only world class managers whose tactics align, with Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann are among those who view him as their mentor, with Rangnick playing a key role in revolutionising German football and going against the norms that were present when he first got in to management.
“We like to press high, with a very intense counter-pressure,” he said when discussing his approach last year. “When we have the ball, we do not like any square or back passes. It is a fast, proactive, attacking, counter-attacking, counter-pressing, exciting and entertaining [style of] football.”
It was Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan of the 1990’s that helped form Rangnick’s ideas on how teams should play. He spent hours studying their approach and took plenty of inspiration from them, at a time when they were dominating Italian football and enjoying great success in Europe, to the point where him playing and rewinding the videos of their games so many times broke the VCR.
Last year, Rangnick was supposed to join Milan as coaching and sporting director, following months of negotiations, but at the last minute they pulled the plug. Paolo Maldini had voiced his displeasure over the German speaking about his potential move, with Stefano Pioli still acting as manager.
“Speaking of a role with full managerial powers in both the sporting and technical areas, he invades areas where professionals with regular contracts work,” he said. “I have some advice for him, before learning Italian he should review the general concepts of respect, as there are colleagues who, despite the many difficulties of the moment, are trying to finish the season in a very professional way, putting the best of Milan before their professional pride.”
It had been Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis who had been negotiating with Rangnick, without consulting Maldini or Zvonimir Boban, who were running the sporting side of the club. Boban was sacked for criticising Gazidis for his handling of the situation.
Milan stuck with Pioli and extended his contract, going on to finish second in Serie A last season, albeit 12 points behind rivals Inter, and are currently second on goal difference.
Rangnick will no doubt have been disappointed not to get a job with the club that inspired him all those years ago, but Milan’s loss is our gain, as we look to appoint a man who has the potential to work wonders with our squad, which is arguably the strongest it’s been for a decade.
Rangnick’s footballing past is impressive, even if, unlike his predecessor, his playing career is nothing to write home about.
At 25, then a player-manager at Viktoria Backnang in Germany’s sixth tier, he faced Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kiev in a pre-season friendly.
“That was the first time I felt what it was like to come up against a team who systematically pressed the ball,” he told The Coaches’ Voice. “I felt constantly under pressure for the entire ninety minutes. It was the first time I sensed: this is football of a very different kind. That was my football epiphany. I understood that there was a different way of playing.”
Lobanovskiy served as Rangnick’s mentor as he worked for his coaching badges, attending Dynamo Kiev’s training session whenever they returned to Germany for pre-season training.
He continued to study this new approach and was further influenced by Foggia’s manager Zdenek Zeman, where he began to understand that pressing alone wouldn’t be enough, but that fitness levels had to match the high intensity he wanted his teams to play with.
“You need to be aware what kind of football you really want to play,” he said “A little bit of pressing? Come on, what is a little bit of pressing? A little bit of pressing is like a little bit of pregnant. Either you are pregnant or not? Either you want to play pressing or not?”
In direct contrast to Louis van Gaal, whose obsession with keeping the ball ensured we witnessed the dullest of football over his two seasons, Rangnick’s model will be better appreciated by the fans.
“If you have too much possession, your game resembles handball and you don’t get anywhere,” he said. “We are prepared to play risky passes, at the danger of them going astray, because that opens up the possibility to attack the second ball… If you want to increase the speed of your game, though, you have to develop quicker minds rather than quicker feet. Improvement translates as taking things in more quickly, analysing them more quickly, deciding more quickly, acting more quickly.”
From watching Liverpool over recent years, it’s clear just how much Rangnick’s revolutionary tactics, which were initially dismissed by the masses in Germany at the time, have influenced Klopp.
Rangnick had guided Hoffenheim from the third tier to the Bundesliga, and played Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. In a game that flattered Klopp, only losing 4-1 in a match where they were battered, the current Liverpool manager couldn’t hide his admiration. “That’s the kind of football we want to play one day,” Klopp said after the game.
In the years that followed, Klopp had huge success with Dortmund, and it was the Italian national team’s technical staff who paid a visit to their training ground, believing their style of play mirrored what Saachi had done at Milan years before, showing the roots of Rangnick’s philosophy.
Klopp also has a habit of signing players who Rangnick first identified and signed, with Roberto Firmino, Naby Keita, Sadio Mane and Joel Matip all coming from Rangnick’s teams.
“It’s definitely no coincidence that [Klopp] has four former players of mine because it shows that he is, in fact, looking for the same kind of players, with the same assets, with the same mentality as we do,” he said in 2019, when Takumi Minamino was due to sign from Red Bull Salzburg. “And, I think, out of the top clubs in Europe, he’s probably the coach with the highest number of former players from us.”
When asked about Rangnick’s imminent move to the Premier League, Klopp was full of praise for his mentor.
“Unfortunately a good coach is coming to England, that’s how it is, to Manchester United,” he said. “Ralf is obviously a really experienced manager. He built most famously two clubs from nowhere to proper threats and forces in Germany with Hoffenheim and Leipzig. United will be organised on the pitch, we should realise that – that’s obviously not good news for other teams. A really good man and an outstanding coach.”
Rangnick’s success with Ulm 1846 and then Hoffenheim started on the training ground, where players were forced to find a teammate through a narrow gap in the middle of the field, with sideways and backward passing banned, to force them to “concentrate really hard”.
“At Ulm, we practised playing without possession in 70% of tactical exercises,” he said in Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot. “At Hoffenheim, only 20% was about winning the ball back. The key was improving your own attacking play with specific measures.”
Not only tactically astute, with a keen eye for detail in training, Rangnick is a big supporter of developing young players and getting them in to the first team. He believes their higher capacity to learn, their faster recovery times and an unwavering team ethic puts them above older players when it comes to recruitment.
“The ability to counterattack, the aggression in trying to win the ball and moving as a unit only works when done collectively,” he said nine years ago. “The performance both with and without the ball effects the entire team and requires an absolute altruism. Younger players often have a greater predisposition to invest in the team spirit because they’re aware that they need it for their personal style of play.”
At Hoffenheim, he insisted the club only signed players who were 23-years-old or younger, echoing the model that United have long had in place, even if the arrival of more experienced world-class players has been sprinkled in too.
When Solskjaer was appointed, the club was in tatters. The players were miserable and beaten down. Recruitment had largely been poor. His job was to restore a cultural identity at the club, develop an improved squad and ease the tensions in the dressing room. The players love him and appreciate all that he did for the club, always taking the blame when they fell short and protecting the squad at all costs. While tactically he came unstuck, he has brought together an impressive squad full of players who largely look like United players. We don’t have characters in the Angel Di Maria or Alexis Sanchez mould anymore, who the club means nothing to, rather a group who understands the importance of representing United.
Still, with accusations of the players downing tools in the final months of Solskjaer’s stint at the club, with him clearly adopting an approach that arguably allowed them to see him as a soft touch, Rangnick has a more authoritarian style, but one that he expects the players to buy in to.
“Experience has also taught me that players need clear rules,” he’s said. “But it’s not enough to tell them what they can’t do and have to do. You have to convince them that adhering to the rules works for them. The changing room needs to buy into it. They will ensure that players stay on the straight and narrow, because it can’t all come from the top. Peer pressure is stronger than boss pressure. I see it as my duty to help them deal with all the temptations and the fake reality they’re faced with as young men making a lot of money… Tactics, fitness and rules are all hugely important, but they’re only a means to an end. My job – the job – is to improve players.”
Rangnick’s role is to take this group to the next level and put in the groundwork for whoever follows. It all feels too good to be true at this stage, so we should be mindful of getting carried away, but it’s refreshing to have hope again and to see some positive steps, at last, are being attempted to get us back to where we should be.