On a chilly February day at the tail end of the German winter, Ralf Rangnick witnessed the future in real time. It was 1983 and Rangnick was the player-manager of FC Viktoria Backnang, an amatuer club in the 6th division of German football. In town were Dynamo Kyiv, then managed by the great Valeriy Lobanovskyi, a pioneer of pressing and someone who can genuinely lay a claim to fundamentally changing the way football was played.
Kyiv needed a local team for a friendly and Rangnick’s Backnang were lucky enough to be nearest. Lobanovskyi’s team were so sophisticated, so efficient, so overwhelming in their pressing that Rangnick claims he counted the amount of players Kyiv had on the pitch. He was convinced they must have had more than eleven. From that day on, Rangnick had only one goal, to revolutionize the way Germany played football.
As Rangnick stood on the touchline at the Etihad stadium during the second half of the Manchester derby last weekend, he may have had a similar feeling. In a 15-minute period during that half, Man City had an astonishing 92% possession and dominated the game overall with a remarkable 69%. It became almost difficult to watch, like an evil academy coach had forced the under-5s to play the reserve team.
Yet, there was a very small sliver of a chance it could have been different. United were, at least for the first 30 minutes, pretty good. Rangnick deployed a surprising and somewhat daring system, attempting to out-Guardiola Guardiola by playing both Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes as False-9s.
Early on, United’s engagement high up the pitch was very aggressive, with the forward players forming four-player squares to press the City defence with intensity and decent precision. They were positive with the ball as well; with Pogba and Fernandes finding pockets of space and attempting to drive the team up the pitch with purposeful, forward passes.
The system, however, was flawed from the start. The thinking behind the False-9 is for the attacker to drop between the lines, creating space for overloads from midfield or the inverted wingers. But when your central midfielders are McTominay and Fred, that is never going to work, as both players are not particularly suited to that positional play. Sancho and Elenga, playing as the wingers, were then left isolated either side of the pitch, and no one was occupying the space in the centre created by Pogba and Fernades’s movement.
While United’s early engagement high up the pitch worked well, their positioning as Man City entered their attacking phases was less successful. They tried to defend in two lines of four, with Pogba dropping off to form a 4-4-1-1, but whenever City came towards them, they suddenly panicked and bolted forwards quicker than a teenager watching Babestation as their Mum turns the door of the living room, and in the resulting acres Man City predictably tore them apart.
Which brings us to the key issue of the millennia of problems Man United currently have. Rangnick may well have the ability to be a head coach, he has never managed a super club with established stars before but it is not out of the realm of possibility. But he has built his reputation as a technical director, taking a club, notably RB Leipzig, and creating – in that fabled and much mocked Man City word – an holistic system in which an entire club is run within a set of fundamental concepts.
This is something that takes years to build and requires consistent, dogged and intellectual application. You cannot overhaul a counter-attacking team into high-pressing purists in six months. Rangnick also formed a system in which coaches got promoted to higher positions; Achim Beierlorzer coached RB Leipzig Under-17s before being promoted to head coach. Jesse Marsch was Ragnnick’s assistant at Leipzig, then moved to another Red Bull club RB Salzburg before taking over at Leipzig.
This methodical approach, developed over years, is very unlikely to be implemented at United. Firstly, United are set to appoint a different manager in the summer, which at the moment seems to be either Mauricio Pochettino Erik ten Hag. Will they really accept the level of influence Rangnick needs to have over the club for his methods to gain similar results as he did at RB Leipzig? Most likely not, and that is before the philosophical clash that could happen between the new manager and Rangnick’s consultancy role, whatever that means.
United need radical change. They haven’t come close to winning a title in 10 years, and at this rate may go another 10 before they do. Ragnick was a chance to overhaul a cumbersome club stuck in the 20th century ‘gaffer rules all’ dark ages. Instead, they’ve thrown him into the shallow end, with no plan of how to use him or his undeniable knowledge and we’re all watching the resulting head first smack into the bottom.
Main image credits: Embed from Getty Images