Ralf at the Wheel: Is this Man United finally getting themselves back on track?

November 30, 2021

The German professor is on his way to Old Trafford, but will he be able to whip the Red Devils into shape?


In their latest attempt at becoming a nostalgia-ridden parody of themselves, Manchester United dismissed Ole Gunnar Solskjær from his position as the manager of their senior men’s team merely months after rewarding him with a newly minted three-year contract extension, continuing to build upon a series of really bad, how-could-this-possibly-happen-at-this-level decisions.

Thing is, as much as one could blame United’s ownership for the mess at the club, having money-hungry owners doesn’t always have to directly translate into bad football on the pitch, something that is definitely true in Man United’s case. Ed Woodward, the outgoing executive vice-chairman of the club, the man chosen by the Glazers to effectively run the club in their stead, is equally to blame, if not to a larger extent.

Here is an opinion that I believe most United fans might not share — for all his faults, Woodward cares about the club. Maybe not as much as he cares about making the Glazers happy, but he does care about the club. His hamartia, though, has always been that he has chosen to include himself in every proceeding at the club, including the football-related ones, and he has had ample of years and opportunities to realise that football is something he does not have aptitude for at the level United aim to operate, and while he is brilliant on the commercial side of things, his continual involvement on the footballing side instead of delegating that part to people who actually understand the sport is why United, today, are a well-run business, but a poorly-run football club.

In order to fill Solskjær’s boots, however, United have made a decision that is…actually good, from a footballing point of view. Very good, in fact.

Ralf Rangnick, who is regarded as the godfather of modern German football, has been appointed as the interim manager of United’s senior men’s team until the end of the season, after which he will move upwards in the club with a consultancy role on a two-year contract.

At 63, United is arguably Rangnick’s most high-profile job to date, although he is not an unknown name in football by any means. Much like Johan Cruyff and Marcelo Bielsa, he is regarded as a major contributor to how modern-day football is played.

Rangnick did not have a stellar playing career like Cruyff’s, something he shares with Bielsa. What he also shares with the Argentine is an early-age realisation of having an aptitude for coaching and management in football.

What he shares with both of them, however, is a near-obsessive attention to detail. Cruyff was famously hard to work with, and Bielsa is well-known for his short-yet-exhausting stints that leave players physically, mentally and emotionally drained. Rangnick demands a lot from his surroundings, his colleagues, and his players. He tries to control everything as well as he possibly can, and expects results to arrive immediately. While all of this may not result in chaos right away, it does provide a recipe for a short-fuse environment.

That, though, is an acceptable compromise for the good work Rangnick does when given the right opportunity and tools, as he leaves behind a framework capable of working in his absence. In Germany, his most famous works include making a village club, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, a mainstay of the German topflight and nearly single-handedly establishing the global football network of Red Bull to the status it currently enjoys.

“Pressing” is a buzzword in football these days, and while Rangnick didn’t invent it, he certainly revolutionised collective pressing in football. Not only are his sides efficient pressing machines, his footballing philosophy of collective football has been an inspiration—both directly and indirectly—for many modern-day successful coaches: Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann and Ralph Hasenhüttl to name a few from a list of many, many more.

In the immediate future, it will be interesting to see how Rangnick goes about assessing the current set of Man United players, who can only offer a dysfunctional midfield and have been crying out for any semblance of structure. It will also be interesting to see whether Rangnick’s system leaves any room for United’s celebrities like Paul Pogba and Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom prefer their teams built around them rather than them becoming just a cog in someone else’s machine.

I would also be remiss in my duty as a writer if I didn’t bring up the fact Rangnick famously prefers to keep politics out of football, something that, for him, also includes matters of racial discrimination. Keeping that in mind, it will be—to put it neutrally—interesting to see how he responds to the many vocal initiatives The Premier League has in place — the Rainbow Laces campaign and the taking of knee before the kick-off as a stance against racial discrimination to name a couple — when he arrives in England.

On the other hand, as far as United’s long-term future is concerned, Rangnick’s appointment flags up a lot of optimistic prospects. The reported involvement of Richard Arnold, United’s current Group Managing Director and long-assumed future executive vice-chairman, in the Rangnick deal indicates that the 50-year-old British accountant—who has no footballing background—understands his limitations and is open to delegate the football-oriented decision-making to the ones actually capable of making them, something his predecessor lacked.

Rangnick took a job at Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow as their manager of sports and development only in July. Earlier in the year, he declined Chelsea’s proposal to become their interim manager before they turned to Thomas Tuchel. Clearly, he would not have taken the United job if his two-year consultancy role that begins from next season did not provide him with the right amount of time and autonomy to do his thing.

If his consultancy is assumed to be effective enough to be a game-changer for United, then he could bring about the structural overhaul the club have been needing for nearly a decade. His experience could also help the likes of Arnold, John Murtough (director of football) and Darren Fletcher (technical director), all of whom are in the nascent stages of their respective roles at the club.

Of course, he is set to help the club find a new manager come summer 2022, with their sight set on Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag. Of course, he could continue as manager himself, though it is unlikely; we shall see.

We have been here before, and we will probably be here again, but in bringing Ralf Rangnick on board for at least two-and-a-half years, Man United have signaled a dawn that might actually not be a false one this time round. Still, it all depends on how they choose to deal with the cards they will be dealt in the near future.

Again, only time will tell.

Anshuman Joshi

Anshuman Joshi is a senior writer at SportsKhabri with special focus towards all things football. His other interests include languages, world history and some good fiction.

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