Even as Ralf Rangnick set his sights on shifting Manchester United’s focus from their past to the future, he began with a journey into his own history. His has been an unconventional route to Old Trafford but the interim manager recalled his impromptu role as Jürgen Klopp’s unofficial agent, a failed attempt to hire Thomas Tuchel for a second time and the day he went to scout Callum Hudson-Odoi and came away determined to sign Jadon Sancho.
The “godfather of gegenpressing”, as Rangnick has been christened, is keen to arrange a dinner with the godfather of United. Yet his new job is no nostalgia trip for a manager who faced Sir Alex Ferguson with Schalke in the 2011 Champions League semi-finals. Whereas Ole Gunnar Solskjær seemed to be in a 1990s re-enactment society, Rangnick is positioning himself as United’s ambitious moderniser. Rewind decades and that description applied to Sir Matt Busby and then Ferguson, the men who forged United before becoming anachronisms in the 2020s.
“The important thing is to celebrate the DNA this club still has, but to also implement it into the transformation to modern football,” Rangnick said. If the transition to modernity may seem a jolt to United, he showed he can speak both Ferguson’s and the Glazers’ language. “It’s pretty easy in football,” he said. “You need to have a certain idea: what do we want to stand for? Call it a corporate identity.”
United’s brand has proved hugely profitable but elements appeal to Rangnick. While they are undoubtedly one of the biggest spenders in the Premier League, United also have a famously fine youth policy. “One does not exclude the other,” said Rangnick, who cited the academy graduates Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood as role models. “We should make sure that every year we have one or two players who are good enough to make it into the first team.” The other parts of the equation involve “the best possible recruitment” and “the best manager”. Since Ferguson, United have had neither.
Rangnick assembled the Bundesliga’s youngest team at RB Leipzig. His transfer strategy has focused on the up and coming but he is adamant he is not too dogmatic. “If you pay big money for a 30-year-old and he’s still good enough to make you successful, I don’t mind that,” he said. “But you have to be aware the money is only being invested in the potential success over the next two or three years and you won’t get any return. I think it always makes more sense to sign a player at 21 or 22 and if you have to pay a big fee, you have the chance to develop him into a player who is worth even more.”
Sancho, who caught his eye playing for England Under-19s but who rejected Leipzig for Dortmund, is a case in point. “It’s clear that his trajectory is now going upwards,” said Rangnick. His eye for talent extends to coaches. He has known Klopp since 1997. Four years later, when Mainz wanted their ageing defender to take over as manager, he turned to a friend for guidance. “In a way, I was his agent and I advised him what he should ask for,” Rangnick recalled. “Jürgen said: ‘Ah, do you not think that is too much to ask?’ I told him it was the right thing to do, and I am pretty sure he got what he wanted.”
They bonded over a futuristic vision. Two decades on, one German pressing revolutionary was still able to make Solskjær’s United look outdated in Liverpool’s 5-0 win in October. Klopp has branded his high-octane tactics “heavy-metal” football. “Mine is definitely not a slow waltz,” Rangnick said. “I am not that far apart from Jürgen in terms of our ideas. That’s no secret.”
A fellow traveller offers lessons. He noted the muscle injuries Liverpool players suffered when exposed to Klopp’s high-intensity approach. He feels his inheritance is better than Klopp’s was in 2015. “I think we are further forward,” Rangnick said, referencing the players, from Mohamed Salah to Alisson, who Liverpool have since added.
The other point of comparison is Tuchel, whom Rangnick made manager of Stuttgart’s under-15s. “I later tried to lure him away from Augsburg when I was at Hoffenheim and I wanted him to become our under-23s coach,” he added. Now Tuchel is a Champions League winner. His mentor accepts he may not emulate his protege. “To do what Thomas did in four months at Chelsea was incredible,” Rangnick said. “I am not sure I can say that things will develop in the same way for me at United.”
Pep Guardiola, Tuchel and Klopp render his task tougher. United have fallen behind more modern clubs. “To say I will challenge the top Premier League managers in the next few weeks or months is not realistic,” said Rangnick. “I am more than optimistic, but I also have to be realistic.”