The football gospel according to Ralf Rangnick – and what it means for Manchester United

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  • Manchester United
    Manchester United
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Ralf Rangnick
    Ralf Rangnick
    German association football manager
Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick - The football gospel according to Ralf Rangnick – and what it means for Manchester United - PA
Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick - The football gospel according to Ralf Rangnick – and what it means for Manchester United - PA

During their bad dream eight years post-Alex Ferguson, Manchester United have cycled through four very different types of manager.

First it was the dependable domestic overachiever, then a maverick Dutch wildcard, followed by the sour serial winner and most recently a 1990s feelgood nostalgia act.

Now it is the turn of the intense technician. Ralf Rangnick’s chalkboard-weathered hands are all over football in 2021, especially in how teams operate without the ball.

But what can we glean about his philosophy from his words and what will it mean for Manchester United?

“The style we [referring to Jürgen Klopp] both like is a very proactive kind of football. It’s high-pressing, counter-pressing football with fast, proactive counter-attacking,” Rangnick told Coaches’ Voice.

United are about to look more like Liverpool, but do they have the players? Klopp is someone Rangnick has ideas in common with rather than a direct devotee, but his team represents arguably the apogee of gegenpressing.

That philosophy, which Rangnick helped to popularise, involves pressing with particular zeal in opposition territory. In practice for Rangnick this is as much about blocking passing lanes as actually winning the ball back with tackles. So high-energy players with good mobility should benefit. Donny van de Beek, for example, could thrive. Jesse Lingard may also come in from the cold.

Alternatively Rangnick is a known admirer of Jude Bellingham, so look out for his starring role in next summer’s United-Borussia Dortmund blockbuster transfer saga. The nod to entertainment will also be key in winning over Old Trafford. There must be no return to the tedious days of Louis van Gaal.

“There’s always a danger if there’s too much emphasis on playing nice football, fair-weather football. Arsenal had a similar tendency under Arsène Wenger, at least in his later years,” Rangnick told The Athletic last year. “Without that aggression, organisation and commitment to getting the ball back, it’s almost impossible to compete at the ultimate top level because you’ll eventually run into teams who’ll do both parts of the game extremely well.”

Rangnick is no enemy of flair, but wants his teams to earn the right to play. United’s pressing will be in your face, and aim to disrupt teams planning to play it out from the back.

In the same interview Rangnick said: “You either press with full conviction or you will fail in your attempt to immediately win back the ball.” United currently rank fourth bottom in the Premier League for Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), a statistic which tracks how many passes opponents are allowed on average before meeting a defender. This is a decent way of measuring pressing intensity and United’s current total of 14.34 compares unfavourably with Manchester City (9.09), Liverpool (8.82) and league leaders, for this stat at least, Leeds on 7.71.

So expect a more aggressive set up when United are without possession and look out for players working harder. It is fair to wonder exactly how Cristiano Ronaldo fits in with this approach.

“Sometimes, teams park two buses in front of their box and force us to have lots of possession, which makes it more difficult to pick up pace and create clear goalscoring opportunities,” he told the Coaches' Voice website. “If you have too much possession, your game resembles handball and you don’t get anywhere. 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.”

No calling out of Wenger by name this time, but it is clear that Rangnick has little time for intricacy from his teams. He will demand decisiveness in the final third. Speaking to FourFourTwo Rangnick said: “when you win the ball, try to look for forward passes. Don’t waste time with square passes because then the 10 seconds are gone.”

This thinking might suit United well, especially with incisive attacking talent like Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood along with plenty of pace (Ronaldo aside) in the forward cohort. Anthony Martial is another player somewhat on the fridges currently who might flourish.

Bruno Fernandes will have renewed importance as the best candidate from a sometimes stodgy midfield to play a risky forward pass. The key, as Rangnick says, will be responding appropriately when those risky moments lead to losing the ball.

In Ben Lyttleton's Edge: Leadership Secrets from Footballs's Top Thinkers, Rangnick says: “Mentality relates to the effort you put in. Are you hungry? Are you willing to submit everything to get better? Do you want to improve yourself every day? Do you live in a professional way? Are you resistant to things like nightclubs or drinking? Do you need a big car or other things for your ego? If you don’t have the right mentality, you can forget about the inherited talent that’s in your DNA, and what you have learned from others. It’s no use. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t matter how talented a player is, if the mentality is s---, forget about it.”

Rangnick is particularly obsessed with the eight to 10 seconds after the ball is lost. It is not just about the intensity of pressure from his team, but how it is carried out collectively. Expect better organisation, and the sense that the team is working in cohesion.

This should spell an end to United’s selective pressing, with certain players appearing to venture wildly out of position while others hang back, a setup which left them particularly exposed in their 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool.

Plenty of Rangnick’s time in training will be devoted to what he calls “swarming behaviour, the synchronised movement of players.” There has already been a bit more of this in United’s two games under Michael Carrick, starting cagey but compact at Villarreal, then deploying Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic to interrupt Chelsea’s supply into their central midfielders on Sunday.

The need for unity extends beyond tactics. Rangnick is not a fan of players pointing out their own names in celebration and believes scorers should celebrate with whoever provided the assist. The mistrust of individualism extends even to a distaste for tattoos.

“I'm not a good loser,” he told Der Speigel in 2008. “When I was a child, I once threw a toy fire truck at my great grandfather after he beat me at a board game. Even today, it's not a good idea to approach me if we've lost a match because we made a few mistakes.”

Again like Klopp, expect fun prickly interviews after games. Especially in defeat. Best to hide all board games and toy trucks from Carrington, just to be safe.

When discussing the time England approached him about the then vacant managerial role, he told The Times: “I said, ‘I would love to come and work with you, but I cannot do it for four months. I am not an interim coach.’ To the media and players you would be the ‘four-month manager’, a lame duck, from day one,”

Rangnick feels he is best when taking a holistic view of an entire football organisation. “Clubbuilding,” he has called it, as opposed to teambuilding. This suggests that his post-interim consultancy role might be where he does his most important work for United, although how much sway he will have ahead of Richard Arnold and Darren Fletcher remains to be seen.

Alternatively he is on the record here as being against interim jobs. If it all goes wrong, he has a ready made excuse.

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