Ralf Rangnick has six months to turn a squad of pretend-pressers at Manchester United into a gegenpressing machine. Is he capable of that?
Ralf Rangnick is the latest fella to have a crack at managing Manchester United and, on the face of it, it appears some common sense has broken out at Old Trafford.
The assumption from Rangnick’s appointment is that the German will be tasked with instilling an identity and a defined style of play to a squad that has operated on the fly for far too long. Rangnick’s thing – and it is his thing – is the high press, a tactic he has pioneered in his previous teams at Hoffenheim, Schalke and RB Leipzig to great success.
The vast number of coaches and clubs that have taken his blueprint has given rise to the opinion that it is the only way to be successful at the highest level. And having seen they can’t beat their rivals, some of whom are coached by disciples of Rangnick, apparently United have finally decided to join them.
Is it reasonable, though, to expect Rangnick in six months to turn this United squad, one chock-full of pretend-pressers, into a pack of well-drilled, rabid dogs?
If that is how United have decided they want to play then, of course, the process must start somewhere. But Rangnick is starting from scratch here. We will surely have to temper our expectations given the obstacles present.
To change United’s style completely, it must be done either on the training field or the transfer market. Rangnick has little chance to fully utilise either.
He arrives at the start of a month when United will play eight matches in 29 days. Not until December 16 will he have a training session that doesn’t fall on the day before or after a game.
And however much this squad has moaned privately about not having been coached properly by Ole Gunnar Solskajer and his staff, you have to wonder about the ability of some of Rangnick’s new players to adapt.
If reports are to be believed, some of the more delicate flowers in the dressing room are more concerned about not being kept in the loop about Rangnick’s arrival more than what the new coach might bring. Those muddled priorities sum up the mentality the 63-year-old is tasked with changing.
Rangnick will doubtless have seen the stats that serve as evidence of the enormity of the job. In his last season as a coach, at RB Leipzig in 2018-19, Rangnick’s players led the Bundesliga for successful pressures per game (53.8). United are currently second bottom of that particular Premier League table having regained possession only 34.8 times per game within five seconds of applying pressure.
United’s most prolific pressers? Fred, Jesse Lingard, Alex Telles, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. Telles’ inclusion in that quintet is bad news for Luke Shaw, about whom Rangnick said last year: “I think they could do with a new left-back.”
Then there is Cristiano Ronaldo. The United megastar’s lack of appetite to chase was viewed as a problem long before Rangnick’s arrival when the Red Devils were not a pressing side. Solskjaer may have intended them to be, but United never pressed from the front in a coordinated and consistent manner under the old boss. So how Ronaldo expended his energy made little difference because it wasn’t as though there was a gang waiting behind him for the trigger to swarm the opposition.
Now, Ronaldo’s approach could be a problem for Rangnick. A compromise may be required here because Ronaldo cannot and will not change his whole game, while Rangnick surely won’t drop the biggest goal threat at his disposal. Even if United suddenly start winning the ball back high, they need the ruthlessness Ronaldo provides to put it in the goal.
United, of course, have to plan for a future beyond Ronaldo but that cannot be Rangnick’s priority and it remains unclear how much say the German will have beyond the end of the season. Reports suggest he has been offered a two-year consultancy position, which is extremely vague.
If Rangnick implements positive changes and his interim reign is viewed as a success, will he still be expected to move aside? Especially into a role with little tangible influence.
If he flops, which given the size of the project must be a possibility, the Red Devils could shuffle him aside but the likelihood that he was enticed to change his mind over accepting United’s SOS call with that prospect hanging over him seems remote. There is clearly a place in the United hierarchy for someone with Rangnick’s vision and track record. If it isn’t on the bench, then the person under most threat would appear to be John Murtough, who we are led to believe was instrumental in bringing him to the club.
Rangnick’s arrival will be fascinating, if nothing else, but the 63-year-old faces an enormous task before he is able to think about his status beyond May. Interim appointments are generally made to glean more from an under-performing side, not change its style and philosophy altogether. Rangnick, somehow, has to do both with a flaky group of players, most of whom know they will be around longer than he will.
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