Ralf Rangnick is the man for Manchester United despite fall-outs

SPECIAL REPORT: He WOULDN’T sign Cristiano Ronaldo after declaring him ‘too old’, avoids picking tattooed players and falls out with his colleagues, but Ralf Rangnick is still the man for Manchester United

  • Ralf Rangnick may not have thought he would coach Cristiano Ronaldo one day 
  • It had seemed unlikely that a maverick such as Rangnick would end up at United
  • There are concerns over United’s inability to press, considering Rangnick’s style 
  • In the past, he has fallen out with colleagues who wish to compromise his vision
  • A football visionary, he will have no problems with self-doubt in his United spell 

Ralf Rangnick answered the question with the absolute certainty of a man who considers himself the smartest person in the room. Would he sign Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?

‘Absolutely not,’ he replied. ‘We have a wage cap. And they’re too old….’ This was in 2016, when Ronaldo was 30 not 36. ‘We have our own philosophy and it wouldn’t work.’

The new interim manager of Manchester United perhaps could not have imagined back then that he would one day be asked to coach Ronaldo.

Ralf Rangnick is still the man for Manchester United despite his previous claims and bust-ups

Five years ago, Rangnick once said he wouldn’t sign Cristiano Ronaldo as he was ‘too old’

It always seemed unlikely that a maverick such as Rangnick would end up at an establishment club such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or even Manchester United, where the global superstars tend to play and where coaching recruitment is somewhat more conservative.

Rangnick is a genuine football visionary but his appointment is akin to chucking a hand grenade in the room and seeing whether the subsequent explosion shakes up the room. A bit like appointing Elon Musk to run Ford. 

Someone who knows him well in football and who greatly admires Rangnick said: ‘It will be great for the young lads at Manchester United. That’s a given.’

A football visionary, Rangnick will be ‘great for the young lads’ at United, an admirer has said

Jadon Sancho, Aaron Wan Bissaka, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Diogo Dalot may not quite know what has hit them but they will become better players and probably be appreciative.

But Ronaldo? ‘Ralf Rangnick is a pressing manager,’ said his friend, referring to the style in which he plays the game. ‘And Manchester United aren’t a pressing team. This will be a great watch but it could be a disaster. Not because of him but because of the dressing room.’

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After eight years of asking just how do Manchester United replace Sir Alex Ferguson, Avram Glazer and Ed Woodward have decided the answer is Rangnick. 

But he’s more a disruptive Silicon Valley tech guy than the J.P. Morgan alumnus and Bristol University graduate, who currently make up United’s executive team. If United are serious and have given him the keys to the car, they should strap themselves in as they face one hell of a ride.

There are fears over United’s inability to press, considering Rangnick’s gegenpressing style

The occasion of Rangnick’s certainty about Ronaldo was a 90-minute meeting I was invited to at RB Leipzig when he was sporting director there. To contextualise, signing Ronaldo would have been genuinely silly for a club like that. 

However, apart from a brief time at Schalke, where he won his only major trophy, the German Cup, Rangnick has only worked for clubs like that, unfancied minnows receptive to his all-or-nothing, hands-on philosophy where he could mould younger, unproven talents. 

When I met him in Leipzig, I was with a handful of journalists from Europe, Asia and North America who had been invited to see him. He was big in Germany but globally he was more a niche obsession. He certainly wasn’t a Pep Guardiola. He wasn’t even Jurgen Klopp, one of the coaches he inspired. 

To be honest, it was a hard sell to a UK paper back then but for the fact that he had just been interviewed for the England job. Dan Ashworth, the FA’s sporting director, wanted to give him the West Brom job in 2012, but Rangnick declined because Ashworth was moving to the FA. 

In the past, Rangnick has worked for unfancied clubs receptive to his all-or-nothing approach

When Roy Hodgson left as England manager in 2016, Ashworth wanted him to lead this current team. David Gill, the Manchester United chief executive, who leans heavily on Sir Alex Ferguson for advice, and FA chief executive Martin Glenn, both wanted Sam Allardyce, so Ashworth was voted down. English football preferred to stick with its own.

Not that Rangnick lacks his own brand of conservatism. Rashford may be nervously checking out his tattoos this morning. 

When we asked him about his policy of not signing players with tattoos, Rangnick said: ‘If I say it’s a coincidence, this is not quite the truth. For the style of football we play, we need team players. 

‘We don’t need players who, after they score, the only thing they are interested in is pointing to their name and celebrating with themselves in front of the supporters.

Marcus Rashford may be nervously checking out his tattoos before Rangnick’s appointment

They should at least celebrate with the guy who gave the assist. Of course this has not necessarily to do with tattoos. But then we need to discuss why do people have tattoos all over their body? It’s got to do with being exceptional and trying to attract attention. 

‘I’m not asking a player before we meet, show me your body whether you have any tattoos. Maybe some of them have tattoos. At least they don’t have them where you can see it everywhere.’

When the billionaire owner of Red Bull, Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz called him in 2011 to ask why his football clubs were failing, Rangnick took the call at his home near Stuttgart at a time when he was enjoying a career sabbatical and, as such, he politely declined the offer to coach Red Bull Salzburg. 

Mateschitz wouldn’t take no for an answer. ‘I’ll be there in an hour,’ he said. Rangnick was curious as to how Mateschitz would make it from Salzburg to his home in Backnang, south-west Germany, so fast given it was a four-hour car journey at best. ‘I will come with my helicopter,’ Mateschitz replied.

Rangnick inspires a high level of devotion, and self-doubt will not be an issue for him at United

Rangnick inspires that kind of devotion.

Similarly, another billionaire, Dietmar Hopp, founder of SAP software who was then 65, had called him in 2006 to ask him whether he could take his village team, Hoffenheim (population 3,000) and playing third tier football, into the Bundesliga before his 70th birthday, Rangnick said he would but that he would do it in three years. 

Self-doubt will not be an issue for the new man at Old Trafford. He was as good as his word, signing unknown young players like Demba Ba and taking them to the top of the Bundesliga.

By 2012, having being wooed by Mateschitz, he was eventually persuaded to take on a sporting director role for Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig.

He has been a master at taking young, unproven players and taking them top of the Bundesliga

But when the Austrian team were knocked out of a Champions League qualifier by Luxembourg’s F91 Dudelange in his first game, Mateschitz told him: ‘I didn’t need to hire you Germans to do this badly, I could have managed that on my own.’

Rangnick had installed Roger Schmidt as manager and signed an obscure Senegalese, Sadio Mane, from Metz. The team didn’t win the title that year but have won it every year since 2014. Meanwhile RB Leipzig rose from being a fourth-tier amateur club to making the Champions League semi-finals in 2020.

And if you want to recruit an obscure yet super-talented young player — which is the hardest thing do to in football — the chances are the Red Bull scouting system will be ahead of you. 

Mane, Erling Haaland, Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano, Timo Werner were all signed early and cheap by the Red Bull clubs. They looked at Joe Gomez when he was 17, Callum Wilson when he was at Coventry and were in discussion with Jamie Vardy’s agent when he was still playing non-league at Fleetwood.

Rangnick once signed an obscure forward, Sadio Mane, in 2014 – and he is now at Liverpool

At 25, Rangnick considered him too old. Rangnick continued: ‘Back in 2012 Red Bull Salzburg had a squad with an average age of almost 30, by far the oldest in the league. Quite a few had come from Bayern Munich, who didn’t get a new contact there but could get another three years in Salzburg. They had players signing the last contract of their career.

From my experience, it’s better if you sign players in their first or maximum second contract of their career. Before 2012, players were at Salzburg and Leipzig because they are nice cities to live in and you knew the club won’t go bankrupt. 

But nothing to do with development of football. So we changed this completely and had an average age of 23.5, the youngest team in the league and most inexperienced. But everyone is completely hungry, they want to improve, they want to win.’

Rangnick may be considered a visionary, but rather like Marcelo Bielsa, he has a habit of falling out with people who wish to compromise his vision. He does, however, share an idol with Manchester City coach Guardiola.

Rangnick also has a habit of falling out with those people who wish to compromise his vision

‘When I was young boy I was urging my coach let me play with No14. And the coach said: “But then you’re a sub!” But I would say: “No, let me play from the start with No14 because it is Johan Cruyff’s number.” Johan was the first modern No10. 

‘He scored goals, he gave assists and, not in same way we expect but if he was in the mood, he would take part in winning the ball back. He was not like Gunter Netzer [the star of Germany’s 1974 World Cup winners, who beat Cruyff’s Holland] or other No10s.’ 

If you can imagine what it was like for a 16-year-old German boy in 1974 to idolise Cruyff rather than Netzer, you begin to get to the nub of the iconoclast. Rangnick was a mediocre player, a trait he shares in common with the Stuttgart school of coaches which now dominate the Premier League, led by himself, Klopp and Thomas Tuchel and with Julian Nagelsmann, another protege at Bayern Munich.

It was Tuchel’s good fortune to fall under his mentorship while a third division player at Ulm. It was Tuchel’s misfortune to be injured just as Rangnick was proving his football genius. Rangnick’s big idea was to abandon man marking, to stop playing a back three (which was de rigueur in Germany).

It was Thomas Tuchel’s good fortune to fall under his mentorship while a third division player

When Rangnick’s playing career had finally exhausted the limits of his talent, pretty much by the time he was 25, he turned out for his home-town team Viktoria Backnang, a non-league German team, who, by chance, played a mid-winter friendly in 1984 against Dynamo Kiev coached by Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

If the likes of Bielsa and Rangnick have been hailed as the fathers of modern football, then Lobanovskyi and AC Milan’s Arrigo Sacchi were the grandfathers of what we see today. Rangnick was both perplexed and fascinated with Lobanovskyi’s zonal marking and pressing system. 

It was this tactical lightbulb moment that saw Rangnick’s star rise as he climbed from the third tier to the Bundesliga with Ulm. That earned him the VfB Stuttgart job but also lumbered him with the sarcastic ‘Professor’ nickname.

He won the Intertoto Cup with Stuttgart and then repeated his Bundesliga promotion trick with Hannover 96, before moving to Schalke, the third-biggest team in Germany, where he was popular with fans but fell out with the board.

Rangnick now has to get to where Jurgen Klopp is and to also match his old apprentice Tuchel

He was recuperating in Backnang when the call from Hopp came but he left Hoffenheim when they decided to sell his star striker, Luiz Gustavo, to Bayern Munich when he wanted to push for the title, having finished seventh. 

It was during this period that Klopp, in his early, difficult days at Borussia Dortmund, told his players that Rangnick’s team were the gold standard after they lost 4-1 to Hoffenheim in 2008.

Rangnick now has to get to where Klopp is and to match his old apprentice Tuchel. Still, he will take that self-assurance of being the smartest person in the room with him into the job. And in the Manchester United boardroom, he can be certain that he will be.




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