EExpectations of Ralf Rangnick’s signing at Manchester United were low, but even six months later his interim post can only be described as a failure.
United’s worst-ever Premier League result – a meager 58 points – was already confirmed ahead of the Crystal Palace defeat. It was their sixth consecutive defeat away from home and although Rangnick’s side got into the Europa League on different results, they did so with a goal difference of one round.
Rangnick’s time on the bench is now over. The job in the Austrian national team is waiting, as is his two-year advisory role at Old Trafford. Focus is already quickly turning to United’s future under his permanent successor Erik ten Hag, who was present at Selhurst Park and is being unveiled by the club less than 24 hours after the final whistle of a miserable season.
However, if you move on too quickly, you risk ignoring the lessons of six months that should be going much better. Rangnick’s appointment was the first major decision by Old Trafford’s restructured football department, which also drove the process behind Ten Hag’s hiring. Many at the club hoped and expected him to have a greater impact as the new interim manager than he did, not least Rangnick himself.
The overwhelming feeling is that this marriage of crisis club and interim manager was a game of mismatch. A respected figure in European football who has earned a reputation for having a broader, long-term vision has instead been called upon – and readily accepted – to a role focused on delivering short-term results. Rangnick came as a manager with a firm, defined idea of how to play but had to find compromises and quick fixes within a squad that knew he wouldn’t be there for the long haul. He hadn’t worked like that before, even though he trained in similar short-term roles at RB Leipzig before moving to Old Trafford.
There he was part of an environment he had built himself, as one source puts it, “down to the person at the front desk.” The task was simply to operate a machine that he knew was already fully operational. United were a different proposition upon arrival and still are, after six months in which their ability to push through changes has been limited. While Rangnick foresaw many of the problems he encountered, he is said to have underestimated the difficulty of solving them. Aside from the first half hour of his first game in charge, attempts to implement an aggressive, proactive high-pressing style never really got off the ground.
Sources say it wasn’t that the players didn’t want to press but couldn’t, as small, individual issues with such a style within United’s unbalanced squad had a multiplying effect. So much can be illustrated by going back to front on the starting grid. In goal, David de Gea’s reluctance to play off his line prevented United’s defense from being positioned higher up the pitch. Without a high defensive line, intense pressing from the front would create gaps in a midfield where the two most recognizable names – Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba – are both best suited as a No10 and are known more for their ball possession skills than outside.
And then there was Cristiano Ronaldo. Rangnick mentioned Ronaldo’s name unprompted in his last pre-game press conference on Friday, when he discussed United’s convoluted style of play under his leadership, and admitted he was “not a pressing monster”. Others close to the club claim that pressing is “fundamentally impossible” with Ronaldo leading the line, while giving him a free pass and insisting the rest of the team use the pass would have been detrimental to the dressing room catch up. Despite this, it was decided that having Ronaldo on the pitch was better than not. After all, he was the only reliable centre-forward in the squad with 12 goals in 22 appearances. Edinson Cavani’s fitness saw him start just five times under Rangnick, the last of those who came in February. Marcus Rashford’s crater shape has been described as a ‘mystery’, although the player and coaching staff have been at the training ground together in an attempt to get to the bottom of the problem. Many of these issues predated Rangnick’s time and were hardly a secret when he agreed to take charge. But others, such as the arrest and subsequent suspension of Mason Greenwood, could not have been foreseen or accounted for.
The youngster was believed to embody the energy and commitment Rangnick desired in United’s attack and would have been a key player in the second half of the season. Greenwood started all eight of the interim’s first ten games in charge and all seven before becoming unavailable for selection. He wasn’t the only one seen as well suited to Rangnick’s methods, as evidenced by the emergence of Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho’s increased playing time. These were exceptions rather than the rule, however, and after the pressing style was abandoned around Christmas, attempts to fit other players’ skills and preferences into a ‘different’ dressing room proved difficult. “There was no one-size-fits-all view of the way you play,” says a source, as this squad includes players signed by all of the club’s last five managers, stretching back to Sir Alex Ferguson. While some players wanted a more tactically detailed approach, others wanted more freedom.
More than one of United’s forwards had concerns about how they were being used in the attack. Without the guiding principles of a club culture like Barcelona, Ajax or Bayern Munich, there was little to fall back on. In his infamous appearances at press conferences, Rangnick has repeatedly cited Manchester City and Liverpool’s recruitment as role models for United. They start with the idea and then buy matching players. In recent years, United’s recruitment has been widely accused of doing the opposite. Players are signed, then someone has to come up with the idea, it was argued. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the on-pitch result is muddled and vague. There is a feeling that a clearer tactical compromise could have been found if there had been more continuity in the dugout. Sources say Rangnick wasn’t expecting to lose Michael Carrick, who informed the club of his decision to leave as caretaker against Arsenal on the day of his last game.
Rangnick was due to start work in earnest as Carrick’s interim replacement the next morning and spent the hours leading up to kick-off persuading him to stay, but to no avail. There was another blow when Kieran McKenna left a few weeks later to become the new manager of Ipswich Town. Despite much ado and whispers surrounding McKenna’s coaching in the final days of Solskjaer’s tenure, Rangnick is said to have valued him as a good coach and a useful voice who had ways of getting through to the players. He was missing when he left, while the temporary nature of Rangnick’s role made it difficult to find a replacement who could commit to a six-month stay.
Rangnick’s influence at Old Trafford could of course extend beyond those six months, but the importance of his two-year advisory role is described like any other advisory role – it depends on how badly United want his advice. It is believed some of this could be focused on building partnerships with other clubs across Europe, which is needed following the impact of Brexit on youth recruitment. Rangnick has developed a good relationship with CEO Richard Arnold but his influence on transfer policy this summer has been minimal as the decision was made not to swap roles and to focus on coaching. The key piece of advice United’s interim manager has for everyone at Old Trafford could come in the next few days, when he is expected to give Ten Hag a full debrief on his experience at United. Communications between the pair have been “fleeting” so far – a few WhatsApp exchanges, it was revealed on Friday – but both agreed to wait until the end of their respective seasons before discussing anything in depth.
Ten Hag will hear about many problems to be solved, but expectedly he’ll work to solve them anyway. Rangnick felt the same about the takeover. He reportedly has no regrets taking on the role, even though it turned out to involve more compromises than expected. As he hoped to have a much larger impact, there will be much soul searching and introspection on his part. While he never fully believed in the players’ ability or willingness to implement the style he desired, it is also true that the side never fully believed in his ability to turn results as interim manager. And with that experiment coming to an end after the club’s worst Premier League score and no Champions League next season, it’s fair to ask if United were right to go down that route. One argument is that by hiring an interim they bought time to find the right permanent manager. If Ten Hag is a success, then the decision may be justified in the long run. But when it came to choosing the man for the six-month stint, even Rangnick would now accept that this wasn’t the place.