As Ralf Rangnick begins another rebuilding process at Manchester United, Oli Coates wonders if the German’s arrival could be the club’s smartest appointment in 35 years.
Fix it, Ralf
Only three men have ever won the top-flight title as Manchester United manager. Ernest Mangnall was the first, delivering the club’s maiden league crown in 1908, before backing it up three years later. Sir Matt Busby added five more titles between 1952 and 1967, either side of the Munich air disaster.
United have gone on to win a record 20 league titles, with a certain Alexander Chapman Ferguson accounting for the remaining 13 of those. Sir Alex was no knight of the realm when he was appointed Manchester United manager in November 1986, just a little over 35 years ago.
But Ferguson’s CV was remarkable even before his time at Old Trafford. The Govan native had been an accomplished goalscorer during his playing career, before going on to manage East Stirlingshire and St Mirren. It was at Aberdeen where he would truly flourish, though.
The great Scot not only broke the 14-year duopoly of Celtic and Rangers as champions in 1980 with his unfancied club, but he then led his team to two further back-to-back title triumphs in 1984 and 1985. Despite vastly inferior resources, Ferguson won four Scottish Cups in five years, completing a cup double in his final season in charge by winning the League Cup too in 1986.
As if that wasn’t enough, the minnows of Aberdeen would even taste continental glory by lifting the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983, seeing off the might of Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals before defying all odds to beat Real Madrid in the final.
To put his achievements at Aberdeen into even greater context, no other club has managed to stop either Celtic or Rangers winning the league in Scotland in any of the 36 seasons since Ferguson left Pittodrie.
This is the man who David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have all failed to live up to. No one has got close to adding to United’s record league haul, as bitter rivals Liverpool and Manchester City have become the Premier League’s dominant forces, along with Chelsea.
Despite not having the CV or managerial credentials, Solskjaer must be given a huge amount of credit for the work he did at Old Trafford, repairing much of the damage done by Mourinho and his predecessors. The Norwegian has rebuilt a distinctly average squad, and leaves behind a far healthier Manchester United than the one he inherited.
Ralf Rangnick is the next man to try to emerge from out of Ferguson’s shadow, but he doesn’t have very long to do so. What he does have, is an impressive backstory, albeit a very different one to most managers.
The 63-year-old has been coaching for the best part of four decades, and he is recognised as the godfather of German gegenpressing. Rangnick has spoken of his footballing epiphany when playing against Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv in a friendly in 1983, with the then-Viktoria Backnang player-coach blown away by the Ukrainian outfit’s intense and organised pressing.
In the years since, Rangnick has adapted, fine-tuned and spread his footballing philosophy far and wide. First, he took village team Hoffenheim all the way to the Bundesliga, albeit with significant financial backing. A brief yet successful stint with Schalke followed, before his masterpiece at the helm of Red Bull’s burgeoning football empire.
Rangnick’s work with Salzburg and Leipzig is well known, with the tactician taking the latter from the fifth tier to the Bundesliga under titles of sporting director and then head of global football. He also had two spells as Leipzig’s coach, taking Die Roten Bullen into the top flight for the first time in 2016 and then into the Champions League in 2019.
While Rangnick’s achievements as both an architect and builder are impressive in their own right, they have been accomplished with hefty resources at his disposal – something he’ll also have at United. However, the style of play he gets his teams to produce is arguably what impresses the most, and this is what United need significant help with.
Swathes of German coaches have been either mentored or heavily influenced by Rangnick’s philosophy and pressing style. This includes current Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann, Borussia Dortmund boss Marco Rose, Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl and Thomas Tuchel, winner of last season’s Champions League with Chelsea.
Without Rangnick, there would be no Jurgen Klopp, whose heavy metal football has gegenpressing coursing through its veins. Now he joins the Premier League as a competitor to the Liverpool manager, who stated Rangnick’s arrival at United was not good news for the rest of the English top flight.
Even so, Rangnick has an almighty job on his hands at Old Trafford, where a hugely talented squad has failed to live up to its potential this season. His CV clearly shows why the United board have turned to him, as the club has done in the past when seeking guidance and advice on things such as their academy and structure.
However, the Reds are in a completely different stratosphere to clubs like Hoffenheim and Leipzig. Turning this dysfunctional giant into a slick, well-oiled trophy-winning machine will be no mean feat, but one that would represent Rangnick’s crowning glory if he succeeds.
And just how he attempts to achieve his goals promises to be fascinating. The German twice recommended himself for the manager’s position at Leipzig, and has admitted he could do the same when the time comes for United to appoint a permanent boss in the summer. His potential candidacy will depend a lot on performances between now and then though.
There was an instant vision of how Rangnick wants his United team to play in his first game in charge. The Red Devils started like a freight train against Crystal Palace, producing an energetic first-half display packed with pressing and turnovers in the final third.
However, energy levels unsurprisingly faltered in the second period, before a lacklustre performance in his second Premier League game away to Norwich City, which United were fortunate to win thanks to a late Cristiano Ronaldo penalty.
Ronaldo’s presence in the team and lack of pressing was a huge talking point after Rangnick’s appointment was confirmed. Yet the problems at Manchester United run far deeper than a 36-year-old who is by far the club’s best player, and even who the manager is.
The fact that Rangnick has seemingly been given the keys to the kingdom just a matter of months after the United board showed their faith in and commitment to Solskjaer by rewarding the Norwegian with a new three-year contract speaks volumes for the complete lack of planning and chaotic manner in which the club’s decision-makers operate.
Of course, there was never supposed to be a mid-season change, but Solskjaer’s position became untenable by the end and his departure inevitable. It appears the board were among the last ones to realise that.
It’s been 35 years since Manchester United got a managerial appointment right, although there was no need for any for 27 years. Even so, the current board has displayed an astonishing level of incompetence in the eight years since Ferguson retired.
Finally, though, there appears to be something of a coherent strategy filtering down from the top of the club. Structural changes have belatedly been made, while bringing in a highly-regarded builder of clubs could point the Reds firmly in the right direction. If he doesn’t stay on as manager, Rangnick has a two-year consultancy period in his contract to influence proceedings.
With Ed Woodward leaving his role as executive vice-chairman in the coming months, it could be the case that the flailing former banker, who is believed to have played a key role in bringing Rangnick to United, may finally have made a decision worthy of his lofty position at the club.
Much of the vitriol that is often aimed at Woodward by a large section of the United support is down to his role in the Glazers’ leveraged takeover in 2005, but his ineptitude effectively as chief executive certainly contributes to this.
After claiming to have resigned out of principle in the wake of the failed European Super League conspiracy, it remains to be seen whether Woodward’s final act can at last earn him a morsel of gratitude from United supporters. If it does, the entire Manchester United board should count themselves incredibly lucky.
Who’s going to follow the interim and the interim?
With Ralf Rangnick only due to be in charge of Manchester United until the summer after taking the reins from caretaker Michael Carrick, Oli Coates identifies five candidates to take over as the Reds’ next full-time manager
The man most fancied as the best fit for United is Paris Saint-Germain boss Pochettino. The 49-year-olds looks as though he’s leading PSG to a comfortable Ligue 1 title in his first full season at the Parc des Princes, but his success will be judged on the Champions League. The Argentine has often flirted with United in the past, and his potential move could be oiled by an apparent frosty relationship with PSG’s sporting director, Leonardo.
Erik ten Hag
With two Eredivisie titles in four seasons as Ajax manager potentially becoming three in five at the end of this term, and an inspired run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 also on his CV, Ten Hag is a credible candidate to take over at United. The Dutchman, who turns 51 in February, plays attractive football and is known for developing youth, which are two key components for the Old Trafford hot seat.
Despite his Liverpool connections and ongoing project at Leicester City, the Northern Irishman ranks highly among bookmakers as the man to be in the home dugout at Old Trafford for the start of the 2022-23 season. However, it would be an astonishing decision for the populist United board to take, with few United fans likely to welcome Rodgers to the club with open arms.
Although this one also appears unlikely due to his connection to a rival, namely Manchester City, some reports have suggested that Mancini has been considered as a wildcard option should United fail to land one of their top targets. His availability would surely depend on whether Italy make it to the 2022 World Cup.
Another left-field candidate, Old Trafford legend Cantona released a cheeky video joking he was to become the new United manager in the wake of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s departure. Affectionately known by fans as ‘King Eric’, the mercurial Frenchman has never hidden his desire to take over at his old club, but with no previous experience in management, those dreams aren’t likely to be fulfilled anytime soon.