After three matches and a handful of training sessions, we’re starting to see what Ralf Rangnick’s Manchester United will resemble.
After news of United’s new interim manager broke through, the tales of Rangnick’s methods, and influence on world football and gegenpressing as we know it, were well documented. From talking to players, coaches and other figures in the game who have worked with, or have been coached by Rangnick, there is one constant theme which runs through their memories or experiences: clarity.
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This is what United’s players and coaches can expect over the next six months working with Rangnick.
What Rangnick’s like to work with as a coach
Ernst Tanner, the sporting director at Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union, worked with Rangnick at Hoffenheim in 2010, and then linked up again with him in Austria after Rangnick became director of football at both FC Salzburg and RB Leipzig in June 2012.
“There’s a nice saying in German, it’s hard to translate, but it goes like: everybody’s darling, is everybody’s “rindvieh” (roughly translating as “cattle,” and also, more suitably, as “idiot”),” Tanner tells ESPN. “Basically, if you want to lead without taking decisions, then it’s going to go wrong.
“With Ralf he has a clear opinion, and follows a clear philosophy, so you are always clear about what to do.”
A coach’s meeting with Rangnick would often involve him eager to hear other opinions on a specific matter, but ultimately, his decision is final. “It creates clarity, and people like that,” Tanner says. The same goes for his methods when identifying transfer targets: he looks for specific characteristics and once he’s found the right man, he arrows in on the process of securing him.
Rangnick’s coaching tree is extensive and broad. From the players he coached during his spells at Stuttgart (1999-2001), Hannover (01-04), Schalke (04-05) and Hoffenheim (06-11) come a vast list of current coaches, sporting directors and managers that includes: Marco Rose (Borussia Dortmund), Julian Nagelsmann (Bayern Munich), Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal), Adi Hutter (Borussia Monchengladbach). Extended further to coaches he’s worked with during his management career and that includes Jesse Marsch, Roger Schmidt (PSV Eindhoven) and Ralph Hasenhuttl (Southampton).
While FC Salzburg manager Matthias Jaissle played under Rangnick at Hoffenheim, he also learned a lot from the man in a coaching capacity. Jaissle, the former defender, managed the RB Leipzig under-17s from 2014 to 2017, and then FC Salzburg’s U18s from 2019 to 2021. As manager of FC Salzburg now, he keeps in close contact with Rangnick as a mentor.
Like Tanner, Jaissle says one of the main things he has learnt from Rangnick is the need to “have a clear vision, in what you stand for, what’s your philosophy, what your way of playing is, and how it looks … there are no question marks,” Jaissle told ESPN.
Jaissle also learnt from Rangnick the importance of looking to other sports, with his mentor always keen to pick the brains of Germany‘s finest hockey coaches like Bernhard Peters (who became Rangnick’s academy manager and advisor at Hoffenheim).
Jesse Marsch, left, worked as an assistant under Ralf Rangnick at Leipzig during the 2018-19 season. Karina Hessland-Wissel/Bongarts/Getty Images
Marsch, who left RB Leipzig earlier this month, worked with Rangnick for much of the past six years, having first met him during his interview for the New York Red Bulls job in 2015. Marsch remembers the interview being fiery, but Rangnick loved his passion. The two share a similar playing philosophy of aggressive counter-pressing football, but on a more personal level, Marsch learnt from Rangnick the importance of keeping messages to players as simple as possible.
Talking to ESPN in 2020, Marsch said of Rangnick: “The beauty of Ralf is that he’s really excited about new ideas. As traditional as he is in some ways, he is also very innovative. This is the beauty of Ralf. His contrasting mentalities and his ability to, at his age, continue to grow and adjust and adapt to the younger generation. He’s got a gift.”
Rangnick also throws everything into coaching development and has an unrelenting attention to detail, but he expects the same dedication back. “It’s definitely a challenge [to work for Ralf],” said one former colleague. “He is focused on every detail out there, whether it be in the locker room, or the team management, scouting, video analysis … he is questioning everybody [about] what can be done to become even better.
“Ralf is restless, relentless and always moving forward. For example, if he has an idea how to make things better at 1 a.m., he picks up the phone and calls his team manager. That is why he is so successful; he is leaving nothing to chance.”
Tanner remembered one occasion where Rangnick was keen to scout a player during the offseason.
“He’s not mainstream, and sometimes he does the opposite of what you expect him to do,” Tanner says. “But that’s Ralf and you have to accept that.
“When a coach was on holiday and we were going on a scouting trip, the coach more or less told him the family trip was a priority. Ralf said, ‘yes, but you can go back on holiday after the scouting trip, it’s just two days.’ The coach was a bit afraid of that, and Ralf said ‘we are not working at the German post office, we’re working for a club.’”
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While Rangnick is resolute in his views on how football should be played, those who have worked with him have adapted his own brand of rock-and-roll football, and made their own tweaks. Take Nagelsmann, who worked with Rangnick at Hoffenheim and then at RB Leipzig.
“Ralf has a special way of thinking about football,” Nagelsmann told ESPN. “I used the philosophy of Ralf at Hoffenheim: counter-pressing is a very important topic. When Ralf was manager of Hoffenheim, we became really successful in the first season by attacking and counter-attacking, and when at RB Leipzig he improved the way of soccer.”
“He gives feedback to his coaches in training, and in the locker room before the game, at half-time and after the matches.” Tanner says. “He always advises on how to act, and to take decisions, in line with his philosophy.”
While Alexander Zorniger, right, coached RB Leipzig from 2012 to 2015, Ralf Rangnick was sporting director. Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images
Alexander Zorniger, who was manager of RB Leipzig from 2012 to 2015 and is in charge of Cypriot side Apollon Limassol, remembers one instance from a promotion campaign where during a key match, Rangnick asked Zorniger if he could speak to the team at half-time. “I told him it was not a good idea,” said Zorniger, who wanted the players to be under no illusions who was in day-to-day charge of the team. “He approached me the next day and said he made a mistake.”
For the coaches like Kieran McKenna at United who have not worked him before, they will be getting to understand how Rangnick’s brain works.
“It is very challenging when you talk with him, as you can talk for hours,” Zorniger told ESPN. “You have to be permanently on your game and follow his thoughts. He gives you a picture of his thoughts: it is a jigsaw with a hundred puzzle pieces.”
What it’s like to play for Rangnick
Germany striker Gerald Asamoah played under Rangnick during his first spell at Schalke — he managed the Gelsenkirchen side from 2004-2005, and again in 2011.
“Rangnick did things that I’d never seen before,” Asamoah told ESPN. He remembers how Rangnick’s tactics were different to anything he had encountered before from his other coaches, and also his unique ways of making an entrance.
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“He had some crazy ideas. I remember once before a game, we were sitting there and he came into the changing room ringing a bell,” Asamoah said. “He did it to get our focus on the game ahead. But it worked, and we believed in his plans, and we became successful again.”
While the Schalke dressing room was an experienced one, Rangnick also has a remarkable track record of bringing through young players.
“He had time to explain things to the young players,” Asamoah says. “With older players, we already have our ideas of how we want to play soccer; with younger players, he can help them see the game as he wants them to. He knows how to talk to them, how to teach them, and how they get to.”
Rangnick has also previously highlighted how younger players have a quicker recovery process, a thirst for improvement and a longer attention span. When looking for young players, Rangnick (a qualified teacher) works off this equation when it comes to evaluating their potential, as outlined in the book “Mensch” by Jonathan Harding, and the chapter “Natural born talent + acquired skill x mentality) = competence,” which is about Rangnick.
Yussuf Poulsen is the example Rangnick uses as validation for this theory: he was identified nine years ago, aged 18, as someone with huge potential when RB Leipzig were in the German third division, and the now Denmark international has since become one of the constant figures in RB Leipzig’s lineup in the Champions League. Poulsen has spoken about that first meeting he had with Rangnick in 2013 when he was told exactly how his career would evolve in tandem with RB Leipzig’s success. Every prediction came off.
“Rangnick is a perfectionist, he thinks about all the little details,” Poulsen said. “He is very ambitious and always tries to improve and does everything for us so we can give everything on the pitch.”
After Ralf Rangnick took over as Leipzig coach, he worked directly with Yussuf Poulsen, a player he had scouted years early when he was Leipzig sporting director. Matthias Kern/Bongarts/Getty Images
Jaissle can relate to this. He recalls Rangnick visiting him at his parents’ house when he was 17 to talk through his hopes and projections for his career at Hoffenheim. “He showed me the path he wanted to go with me and where he saw my future in the next few years,” he says. “He showed me my potential, gave me a career plan and what he wanted to achieve with the team. I was impressed and after two to three years, everything he predicted was true. That’s what he stands for: he can really show young players how they can develop.”
Jaissle remembers how Rangnick made everything individually “relatable,” no easy feat in a diverse changing room. “He knows what each individual needs to make them better,” Jaissle says. Asamoah echoes this: “He was a coach who had time for everybody and was like a teacher and knew how to explain the game to you.”
His man management is tailored to the individual, with no player getting preferential treatment over another, though it is through his sense of “clarity” that helps unlock a player’s potential.
“Ralf has a special thing about him to get people excited and motivated,” said an ex-colleague. Tanner feels Rangnick’s incredible ability to bring through young players is down to his ability of “combining knowledge with empathy and having the conviction to do right. That’s something quite strong and encourages people.”
Germany defender Andreas Beck, who played for Rangnick at Hoffenheim, tells ESPN: “It’s unbelievable how meticulously he works. He analyses every training session, and every opponent. He leaves nothing to chance. He is very detail-orientated, and a perfectionist.”
What Manchester United can expect under Rangnick
Rangnick described his philosophy to ESPN in 2020 as “pretty simple.”
“[It is a] very proactive style of football,” Rangnick said. “We like to press high, with a very intense counter-pressure. When we have the ball we do not like any square or back passes. The goalkeeper also should not be the one with the most contact on the ball. It is a fast, proactive, attacking, counter-attacking, counter-pressing, exciting and entertaining [style of] football.”
Rangnick has so far used a 4-2-2-2 formation with United. The two strikers play narrow alongside each other, with the two attacking midfielders playing a little wider. Then he has two defensive midfielders, operating in front of a back four where the two wing backs push high.
Ralf Rangnick says he’s aiming to improve Manchester United’s defensive record in his first press conference as interim manager.
“He is a smart guy,” Zorniger says. “He will not make the mistake of trying to change everything from day one, which he would have done had they [hired] him at the start of the season. He will adjust his style to the players, but he wouldn’t have taken over if he thought the players were so far away from his playing style.”
Prior to joining United, Rangnick watched a few of their matches, and pored over training sessions. Before United won against Crystal Palace, they only had one 45-minute session together, though Jaissle warns that the players will be in line for “tough” training sessions over the next six months.
Jaissle said: “They may not be long, but they’ll be intense, you’d always know that you’d been training. [At Hoffenheim] it was mainly shorter repetitions at high intensity — a lot of sprints — to form the basis for the way of playing he likes.”
He’s also well-known for innovative ideas. The well-told story of the countdown clock he installed at Hoffenheim — it ticks down from eight seconds, the time his team are allotted to regain possession, and also from 10 seconds, the time in which he wants his team to transition from defence to a shot on goal — is “an old one”, according to Tanner, but at the time it was “unique because it was the first time somebody had that idea.”
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Since his time with Salzburg and Leipzig, Rangnick has continued to embrace new methods — like bringing in the Soccerbot, a machine that simulates previous matches, and allows players to re-think their actions so they can look for alternative options. As Salzburg, he also introduced an anti-gravity running track and Intelligence gym — a training program anchored around improving cognitive function.
After every match, win or lose, his mentality stays the same. “He is always focused on development. Even if we were winning a number of games in a row, he was still pushing us,” said Oliver Glasner, the Eintracht Frankfurt manager and another Rangnick disciple from a stint as assistant manager at Salzburg in 2012.
“He’s very demanding, but it’s never personal,” Glasner added. “He wants the project to move forward. I remember once winning 7-0, he wasn’t totally happy. He felt we could have scored four or five more goals.”
Beyond the obvious pressure at such a big club, the biggest challenge for Rangnick at United will involve juggling the short-term “manager” role (slated for six months, through the end of the 2021-22 season), with the long-term project of the two-year consultancy post that’s set to follow. A former colleague says Rangnick will “assess the status quo and analyse the whole set-up” and will try to implement solutions “not tomorrow, but yesterday.” In the long run, the goal is to make a system which works seamlessly like a “swiss clock” — but patience is king here.
“It is important the players are open to his new ideas,” Beck says. “If every player goes along with his way, everyone will benefit, from the 17-year-old to the world star, and in the end, the whole club.”