English Premier League

Man United Actually Did Something Smart

On the arrival of Ralf Rangnick and what this means for the direction of United…

Well, United made a hire. They made one rather quickly, and while it is not their permanent hire, it is one that was still relatively quick as it needed to be.

And…well…they did something good. Very good. Surprisingly good, in fact. For a club that has been a good ol’ boys club, a club that has often fallen over itself at any attempt to move forward from the Sir Alex Ferguson Era, a club that has failed for several years has quite honestly made a home run hire. They have brought in a man who will be here longer than his “interim manager” tag, and someone who has the capability to be the man that carries United into a new generation.

Ralf Rangnick arrives in Manchester from Lokomotiv Moscow, taking the interim tag for the remainder of the season before taking the very generic title of “consultant” at the end of this season. Rangnick is most well-known for his time as the sporting director of the Red Bull system and manufacturing the Red Bull Empire in Europe before managing RB Leipzig to the Bundesliga. His whole career was not just within the walls of the Red Bull castle, however, as he also enjoyed two very successful spells at Schalke, which included a Champions League semifinal appearance, a DFB-Pokal final appearance, and a narrow second place finish where they really could have (and maybe should have) won the league. He was also the manager that guided Hoffenheim to the Bundesliga. He’s done his fair share of work even aside from the sporting director stint in Leipzig and Salzburg, and he is cut out for this job. And given the names that were linked with the interim gig (mainly my bafflement at the Rudi Garcia links), Rangnick was by far the best option available.

And it might be tactically where his career influence stretches further than most. It is not too much of hyperbole to call Rangnick one of the most important men in the modern history of German football. It was his tactical philosophy that earned him love as a manager, even earning the complements of Sir Alex Ferguson when Rangnick’s Schalke put up a fight against Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Semifinal, having just eliminated reigning European champions Inter in the previous round. It was this tactical philosophy that became the Gegenpress, and it helped lay the foundations that Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, and others would build upon to set up their successes. Much like Marcelo Bielsa, Rangnick is somewhat of a tactical father, a man on top of managerial trees for many German coaches, and many others went on to have more success than he did using similar philosophies. He walked so that others could run, so to speak.

So what does this mean for Man United? Well, we saw a bit of it during United’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, and I was quite surprised at how much was shown from the team despite only having one training session with Rangnick. United seemed to play in that stereotypical Red Bull 4-2-2-2, a departure from Solskjær’s preferred 4-2-3-1. This seemed to be largely beneficial to the players, as Ronaldo was now playing up top with support, Bruno Fernandes could get into effective positions without Ronaldo getting in his way, Sancho could cut inside and get on the ball much like he did for Dortmund, and Fred, the game’s surprise goalscorer, was able to be more than simply the holding midfielder he was forced to be previously. And much to the delight of the fans in attendance at Old Trafford, there was indeed pressing! It was not always clean, it lacked some organization at times, but it was there.

And this was reflected statistically. United won the ball in the opposition half of the pitch more times against Palace than in any game in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. The tackles won and interceptions number for both central midfielders as well as both fullbacks were also noticeably higher. This pressing combined with the 4-2-2-2 congesting the middle of the pitch allowed United to control the match and dictate the tempo. It also allowed ample room on the wings for both fullbacks, in this case Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot, to bomb up the wings, play in dangerous crosses, and generally be more influential on the match than fullbacks had been many times in the previous system. It never felt like an “if” they would score, but a “when”, and that control was eventually rewarded by a very well-orchestrated team goal. The system obviously was not perfect, nor should it have been after only one training session under Rangnick, but it certainly showed potential.

The pressing, or the idea of pressing, has certainly been the hot-topic issue since Rangnick’s takeover was announced. Many mockingly wondered how the German would convince the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Paul Pogba to press and work off the ball when neither showed really any inclination to want to do so previously. And, to be fair, it is a valid concern. The basis of Rangnick’s system, as is the basis for Klopp and Tuchel’s related systems, is that the players need to fully buy in to the collective work aspect of it, which mainly revolves around the off-ball work and pressing system. While Pogba is not with the team at the moment due to injury, Ronaldo has looked more than willing so far to oblige. Whether that energy is maintained for the rest of the season is up in the air, but early returns are hopeful.

And the pressing itself as a topic has shown hopeful return. Pressing is not completely foreign to this United team, as Solskjær tried to implement a high pressing system at the end of his tenure. As we saw against Liverpool, it clearly did not work, as the system was too naïve and disorganized in application to stop anything, which led to multiple goals for Liverpool that were too easy or riddled with basic United errors. The press under Rangnick was much more organized, with defined trigger points and centered around a base 4-2-2-2/4-4-2 shape that was easy to apply pressure from while also being easy to retreat and organize into should they not win the ball high up the pitch. Obviously Palace are not the greatest team, so we will really learn the effectiveness of Rangnick’s system when they face a more press-resistant team, but again, early returns are positive.

This brings us to the second part of the Rangnick appointment, which is the one that lacks any sort of certainty. We know what Rangnick will bring as a manager, we know he was pretty good at his job at previous clubs, and we know that based on that past experience and early returns with United, he is well-positioned to be the one that has them at least finishing in the top four places once again. He will at minimum keep things ticking over into the new manager’s tenure, if not do a bit more. The part that we do not know about is the two-year consultancy position that the German will be filling once his interim tenure is up. And from what we are hearing from the club, the man himself, and people around the club, no one else is quite sure what that position looks like either. It is unclear how Rangnick fits into the club beyond his interim tenure, and that is probably the biggest concern with all of this.

Do not get me wrong, Rangnick is obviously a very intelligent man and a very decorated sporting director and consultant. His past work speaks for itself, simply seeing the staggering number of young stars and talented managers alike that have come from the Red Bull clubs as academy graduates or scouted signings since he took over as Sporting Director in 2012. What he brings to the table is not being questioned, but we are all unsure what exactly he is going to be doing. Will he be a sporting director? Does he in any way override the appointments of John Murtough and Darren Fletcher as Football Director and Technical Director, respectively, earlier this year? Will he simply be working alongside those two or working as some sort of consultant or advisor to those two? Will he have any or controlling say over signings? Over the managerial search? Will he just be someone who runs the scouting department, telling people where to look rather than who to look for?

Will anyone actually listen to him?

United as a club have been ran by hard-nosed and stubborn people basically since the Glazers took over the club and appointed Ed Woodward as Executive Vice-Chairman. They tend to want to do things their way and will not bend to the influence of others. You could see that influence in the latter years of Ferguson’s tenure, where teams became more stringently funded and they were unable to maintain their early 2010s success, and this even lasted further beyond Ferguson’s retirement. Jose Mourinho very famously did not want United to sign Fred, but they did so anyway regardless of Mourinho’s strong temper. Even the small action of appointing Murtough and Fletcher to those positions is revolutionary in itself, but will Rangnick’s arrival be rocking the boat a little to much? Rangnick is also a strong-willed individual, and even with Ed Woodward’s pending departure from the club, there are still equally strong-willed and stubborn individuals still in the hierarchy. Rangnick, should he be given authority in this new role, will likely want to make changes to United’s scouting, player recruitment, and/or youth development systems. Some of those ideas may be brilliant. Will he be listened to? Who knows.

And then what about the permanent manager search? Will Rangnick get the job much like Solskjær did? It is unclear whether he actually wants it, but it is something that he has not dismissed. But what about the other candidates? Could Zinedine Zidane be convinced to take the United job in the summer? Will they go with Mauricio Pochettino despite his struggles with PSG? Will they peel Erik ten Hag away from Ajax? Will it be someone else that Rangnick plucks from the wild? No one really knows, and while the present for Man United is very clear, the future remains just as uncertain as it was the day Solskjær was sacked. They have made one smart decision, and they deserve commendation for that, but they will need to make several more smart decisions before United are back to where they need to be.

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