Manchester United showed the door to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last week and has finalised former Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig manager Ralf Rangnick in the interim role for the rest of the season.
Though the club has managed to stay afloat with the Champions League Round of 16 qualification with the win against Villareal, the anathema that cost Solskjaer his job included Michael Carrick and Terry Phelan, the ones who are still among the backroom staff.
Rangnick’s appointment in such circumstances hints at a panacea that the club may well allow him to continue even after his tenure as an ‘interim manager’.
Manchester United names Rangnick as interim manager
Rangnick, having started coaching in 1983, comes with a hefty bit of managerial experience at various levels in football, with most of it in the Bundesliga.
He was the Head of Sports and Development at Russia’s FC Lokomotiv Moscow before taking the United job and that must ring the bells for the United management to think of a director of football.
While John Mutough holds that position currently, his impact has been minimal in terms of success in tournaments. Rangnick fits the bill with a more impressive CV in the same role at Leipzig nine years ago, wherein the club did not just rise from the fourth tier to the Bundesliga, but also finished as a semifinalist in the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League.
Rangnick is known as the godfather of Gegenpressing, a style of play that was passed on to Jurgen Klopp as well as Thomas Tuchel, both of whom have won Europe’s highest honour in club football with it.
The Gegenpress and Rangnick’s style of play
Gegenpressing is a style of play wherein the players, after losing the ball, press the opposition quick enough to get it back. The style roots back to Italy as former AC Milan Arrigo Sacchi was one of the early proponents of the art.
In the book Inverting the Pyramid, Sachhi had said, “If we let our opponents play in a way, they were accustomed to, they would grow in confidence, but if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence.”
“That was the key: our pressing was psychological as much as physical.”
But Rangnick’s style goes beyond constant pressing when his team builds an attack with preference given to long balls fed for attackers to poach and shoot, something Klopp has worked well with Andrew Robertson and Trent-Alexander Arnold.
While Klopp prefers a 4-3-3 and Tuchel goes with three men at the back, Rangnick prefers a narrower formation, working on a 4-2-2-2, with the midfielders shifting from a holding position to a free attacking position in possession.
In the context of United, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes would fit that role very well, pairing with Scott McTominay or Donny van de Beek, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Mason Greenwood can become a dangerous attacking pair.
The 4-2-2-2 formation is nothing new at Old Trafford. Former United manager Alex Ferguson used to pair Wayne Rooney with Carlos Tevez, with Ryan Giggs and Ronaldo on wings and Paul Scholes playing the role of a feeder.
However, the caveat to such a style of play is a need for a consistent and heavy workrate throughout the match. A team neelaapplying the gegenpress must have the ability to switch from attack to defence promptly.
That and constant pressure often tires players not accustomed to the style, which makes a side vulnerable to injuries in a packed schedule, something that was seen in Marcelo Biesla’s Championship win with Leeds United in 2019, referred to as the “Biesla Burnout.”
United’s problems beyond Rangnick
United has had two legendary managers after Ferguson left – Jose Mourinho, the Special One, and Louis Van Gaal, the autocrat who led Ajax and Barcelona to success.
Neither succeeded. “At Man United, I was angry not getting the chance to complete the three years they had asked of me. I wasn’t given that time,” Van Gaal had told FourFourTwo last year.
This should be a matter of worry for the German, who will be the third marquee manager after the Portuguese because he is neither a United legend nor an ex-Ferguson apprentice.
The other problem: players. United employs some of the best and highest-paid players of the game with Ronaldo, Pogba, Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho all in the team.
A dressing room debacle paved the way for Mourinho’s sacking at United.
Rangnick, coming back to day-to-day football management after nine years, will have to acclimate with how the game has evolved over the decade, with more money, more financial unrest (thanks to COVID-19), and humongous egos of star players fanned by their agents.
As Rangnick joins United, his objective will be clear – reconstruct a broken team and earn a top-four finish and.