No Manchester United manager of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era understood the club as deeply as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, writes Ryan Baldi.
He had a deep reverence for the 20-times champions’ storied history – of which, he formed no small part. But for all the Norwegian was able to tap into the fabric of United, he was consistently unable to imbue his side with a sense of identity on the pitch. The kind of structured play espoused by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel was seldom sighted at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer’s players often appeared under-instructed, unable to call upon the guidance of a set of playing principles dictated by the manager. With the imminent arrival of Ralf Rangnick as the interim boss to replace the sacked Solskjaer, though, that will unequivocally change.
“The playing style should be highly recognisable – so much so that even on a bad day you can still recognise the kind of football that the team wants to play,” the German tactician told The Coaches’ Voice when discussing his work as sporting director of both RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg.
“By doing that, you create an identity across the whole club. Not only with the players but also the coaching staff and even the fans.”
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 3, 2021
It was an encounter with Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kiev as a 25-year-old player-manager of German sixth-tier side Viktoria Backnang in 1982 that first opened Rangnick’s eyes to the art of co-ordinating pressing. And it was an obsession that grew as he studied Arrigo Sacchi’s great AC Milan side later that decade.
Considered one of the godfathers of Gegenpressing – a counter-pressing style in which co-ordinated pressure is placed on the opponents high up the pitch, with the aim of recovering the ball in favourable positions and then attacking quickly – Rangnick rose to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s off the strength and innovativeness of his work with the likes of Ulm, Schalke and Hoffenheim, whom he took from the third tier to the Bundesliga.
Rangnick has never won a top-flight title in his career, with a runners-up spot with Schalke in 2004-05 being the closest he’s ever come to ultimate Bundesliga glory, and his best effort in the Champions League remains the time he guided the Gelsenkirchen side to the semi-finals in 2011 – where they were eliminated by United. But, much like Marcelo Bielsa, Rangnick is considered one of modern football’s most influential coaches, inspiring a generation of managers who have taken his principles and enjoyed greater success.
Thomas Tuchel was a young defender under Rangnick’s charge at Ulm before injury forced his retirement aged 24. Bayern Munich boss Julian Nagelsmann has cited United’s new temporary manager as an influence. And although Jurgen Klopp learned primarily at the feet of Wolfgang Frank, his former manager at Mainz who subscribed to a similar ideology, he also took inspiration from encounters with Rangnick as a young coach.
He is idealist in terms of playing style, but Rangnick is not tied to any one formation. He takes a pragmatic view of assessing the squad at his disposal before moulding a line-up around its strengths, so past managerial posts don’t necessarily give an insight into the shape of his United side. The tactical plan, however, will always have at its base an intense press.
This, as has been widely speculated since the first rumblings of Rangnick’s appointment, could be an issue for some United players, most notably 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo. According to FBref.com’s statistics, United currently rank 17th in the Premier League for pressures per 90 minutes and 16th for pressures in the attacking third. Individually, Ronaldo’s 6.45 pressures per 90 means 99 per cent of forwards in Europe’s top five league press more than the Portuguese.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Rangnick’s Old Trafford appointment is that when his short spell as manager ends in May, he will slide into a two-year consultancy role with the club. In the past, as either manager or sporting director, the German has proven to be a discerning spotter of young talent, having signed the likes of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Joshua Kimmich and Erling Haaland.
A key reason behind Rangnick’s determination to only sign players aged 23 or under while overseeing the Red Bull project was to maintain a high resale value in those he purchased. It was the Red Bull clubs’ modus operandi to, as Rangnick put it, “sell players for double figures within two years”. Resale value is of less concern to a club such as United, who sit in the top bracket of football’s financial food chain.
RB Leipzig's Bundesliga stats under Ralf Rangnick in 18/19:
‣ Pos: 3rd
‣ P: 34
‣ W: 19
‣ D: 9
‣ L: 6
‣ Clean sheets: 16
‣ Goals scored: 63 (61.52 Expected Goals For)
‣ Goals conceded: 29 (38.04 Expected Goals Against)
‣ Average total match goals: 2.7 (2.9 Expected) pic.twitter.com/1MDtyteRYL
— Sporting Life Football & Infogol (@InfogolApp) November 28, 2021
But monetary returns were not the only driving factor behind Rangnick’s preference for working with youngsters: he also prefers younger players because they tend to have the engine to execute his high-energy style and the malleability to be shaped into his way of playing. It makes perfect sense, then, that reports have already linked United with January moves for RB Leipzig midfield duo Amadou Haidara, 23, and Christopher Nkunku, 24.
Haidara’s arrival would address United’s current lack of a top-quality defensive midfielder to better shield the backline. Nkunku, whom Leipzig singed from Paris Saint-Germain in 2019, is an attack-minded, energetic central midfielder with an eye for goal and would be a suitable replacement for Paul Pogba, should the World Cup winner decide to leave Old Trafford when his contract expires at the end of the season.
Crucially, both players are indoctrinated in the Leipzig – and thus the Rangnick – way of playing, possessing the discipline and engine to operate within an intense, counter-pressing system. After years of ill-fitting managerial appointments and giving little effort to establishing an on- and off-pitch methodology that doesn’t simply harken back to the lost old days of Ferguson, United at last appear to be moving towards modernity with Rangnick’s arrival.
“He’s a really good man and an outstanding coach,” Liverpool boss Klopp said. “He’s a really experienced manager and famously built two clubs from nowhere to proper forces in Germany – Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig.
“He’s done a lot of different jobs in football, but his first concern was always being a coach, being a manager, and that’s what his best skill is. Unfortunately, a good coach is coming to England.”