Mentor to Klopp and Tuchel honed his coaching philosophy on his rise from Germany’s sixth tier to the Champions League.
The Premier League just got more interesting. Ralf Rangnick, set to be appointed as Manchester United’s interim manager and then as a club consultant after the departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, has already had a successful impact on English football: his belief in fast-paced transitions has influenced Jürgen Klopp and he was mentor to Thomas Tuchel and gave him his first coaching job (as Stuttgart’s youth coach).
Now, after a long flirtation with the English game – Rangnick was close to the England job in 2016 and to roles at Everton in 2019 and Chelsea last season - comes the opportunity to put his stamp on a team. And there will be a stamp because, with Rangnick, it always comes back to identity. He has a clear style of play that he demands from his teams. He has said that all of Europe’s top coaches “know what their football looks like”. For the first time in several years, United may finally be able to say the same.
The Rangnick style kicked off in 1983 when he was player-manager of sixth-division Viktoria Backnang. His team lost a pre-season friendly to Dynamo Kyiv. Rangnick could not get over the Dynamo pressing game and was convinced they were fielding three extra players. That formed the basis of his philosophy, later honed at Hoffenheim, whom he took from Germany’s third division to the Bundesliga top seven.
Its focus, helped by an early adoption of analytics, was on aggressive pressing, direct and vertical passing, numerical superiority in key areas, and more sprints to win back the ball. His playing principles, he told the International Football Arena conference, include: “You need to dictate the game with and without the ball, not through individuals … use transitions, switch quickly … to think and find the right solutions quickly … and shoot within 10 seconds of winning the ball back.”
This identity suited RB Leipzig, and its Red Bull-ownership brand, even better. As coach and then director of football, he reduced the team’s average age from 29 to 24 and took them from Germany’s second division into the Champions League, where they reached the semi-final in 2020. Rangnick ended up as head of sport and development across Red Bull’s four football teams. One of his hallmarks there included a succession planning policy so every coach who leaves (usually for better things) is replaced seamlessly, and without a change in playing style. It sounds so obvious but is still rare. Rangnick has become a byword for tactical influence and talent development in Germany and has even taken credit for the national team’s 2014 World Cup success.
The 63-year-old is passionate about improving his players, and not just by helping them run faster or kick the ball harder. “The biggest untapped potential lies in the footballer’s brain,” Rangnick told me when I interviewed him for my book Edge: Leadership Secrets from Football’s Top Thinkers.
Rangnick was one of the first coaches to hire video analysts and sports psychologists to help his teams gain an advantage. “Mentality relates to the effort you put in,” he continued. “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 shit, forget about it.
“We compare our players’ development [at Red Bull] to a 1,000-piece jigsaw. We try to offer all of those 1,000 pieces to every player, and it’s up to them to use them in whatever dimension they want. We try to have all the relevant aspects of football development in our portfolio. We want the best possible support staff to develop the players.”
Rangnick compared his role as a coach to a salesperson trying to convince a sceptical customer. “That’s what coaches are!” he laughed. “They have to give the players a reason to get up for training every morning, and to do that they tap into what drives them as individuals.”
He may be a tough taskmaster but has a genuine warmth. “Modern-day leadership is about being persuasive and creating a motivational basis so every day the players will want to come in and get better. This is about trust and empathy and human relationships.”
Words such as philosophy and identity may seem like corporate buzzwords, but when it comes to United they hit a nerve. In the past Rangnick has warned against coaching changes that require a totally new approach to playing style, man-management and recruitment. This has been the United way since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013.
Rangnick knows it takes time to change a club’s setup. He understands why clubs who haven’t experienced a different model are hesitant. His United agreement incorporates a consultancy deal of at least two years to prevent the club repeating past mistakes. The irony is that, three years after United started looking for a director of football, they have landed on one of the best in the game, and appointed him as manager. His most important work for United may come once this season is over.