Manchester United’s latest conundrum – the role of Ralf

MANCHESTER UNITED appear to be in limbo land once more, appointing an interim manager to replace a caretaker (or was it the other way round?) and they are reliant on a 36 year-old striker to lift a club that seems further away from regaining past glories than at any time in the past nine years. The jury is permanently out on United and their decision-making ability, the latest issue being the near and medium-term future of Ralf Rangnick, their temporary coach.

Since Rangnick came on board, United’s form has been far from a disaster, but somehow things don’t seem right. This may seem unfair given Rangnick’s reputation in the game. He is, supposedly, the inventor of Gegenpressing and cites Ernst Happel, Valery Lobanovsky, Arrigo Sacchi and Zdenêk Zeman as his main influences. He has also helped shape coaches like Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julien Nagelsmann, among others.

Rangnick has walked into a club that seems quite ill-at-ease with itself. Manchester City’s constant stream of triumph must really irk the Old Trafford regulars, but it’s the gap between the two Manchester clubs that defines one as sleek, corporate football at its most successful while the other resembles a club from a different era that continues to struggle with its post-Ferguson identity. It’s now nine years since the iconic manager of the Premier League era retired and United are still looking for the right direction. In that period, they have won just three trophies, the last silverware secured in 2017. They’ve had four permanent managers in that time; David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Their average league position since 2013 has been 4.4 – compared to 1.3 for the previous eight years.

Rangnick’s credentials as a football academic may be impeccable and, in truth, he hasn’t done badly at all at the club. His eight Premier League games have resulted in five wins, two draws and one defeat. But there are conflicting reports about Rangnick’s relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo, who he substituted recently during a game, much to the disgust of the Portuguese superstar. On one hand, CR7 speak out in favour of the new coach, while other, whispered stories suggest he is unhappy at the style of play. Not everyone was convinced about the appointment of Rangnick, questioning if he had enough recent managerial experience. Some felt he was a white board and powerpoint man and a strategist rather than a football manager.

Others have been disappointed with the team’s performance since his arrival, although one of United’s weak spots, defence, has been improved. While Ronaldo scored plenty when he was first signed from Juventus, the goals seem to have dried up and he has netted twice in the league since Rangnick was hired. There were already question marks about Ronaldo’s affect on the rest of the team, such as Bruno Fernandes, who was spectacular a year ago, but has struggle to reproduce his best since CR7 joined United.

Anyone expecting activity in the January transfer window would have been disappointed, for United didn’t sign anyone but unloaded seven players, including loan spells for Anthony Martial and Donny van de Beek to Sevilla and Everton respectively. United’s squad remains top heavy but they still don’t seem to have the players they need. Their record in the transfer market, like almost all major clubs, is very patchy –  for example, they paid € 85 million for Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and things haven’t exactly gone to plan. And what of Paul Pogba, the enigmatic French midfielder? His contract expires in June, so it looks like he will be on his way after a six-year period where he has rarely been at his best. Gnerally, United’s transfer policy has to be questioned.

Obviously, frustration with the club goes beyond playing matters, the Glazer family are still heavily criticised even though they have clearly demonstrated they are in it for the long haul. Their sports business, which also includes Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is valued at almost US$ 6 billion and is the eighth biggest sports empire in the world (source: Forbes).

Manchester United’s wage bill went up by 14% and is one of the largest in global football, totalling £ 323 million and representing 65% of income, one of the highest in the club’s history but still reasonably healthy given the environment and compared to most of their peers. According to KPMG Football Benchmark, United may have lost around 20% in revenues during the covid-19 pandemic. Their income for 2020-21, at £ 494 million, was 14% lower than the previous campaign and their pre-tax loss amounted to £ 24 million. 

Rangnick’s mandate at Old Trafford is not necessarily to become the permanent manager but may be to help stabilise the club and prepare it for the next big managerial hire, whoever that may be. His agreement with United includes a consultancy period that goes beyond a role in the dugout, which is really the key aspect of this discussion. 

United need Rangnick’s experience as part of the Red Bull football empire and that is understandable, whatever people think of controversial but impressive clubs like RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg. Rangnick, a strict disciplinarian and firm advocate of youth development, is widely considered to have been the most important figure in the story of the Red Bull football structure, so it is not difficult to see a major role for the 63 year-old German if the Glazer family want to build something new and make United into a more dynamic corporate football institution. 

This, of course takes time and it will demand a shift in mindset to be truly successful – English football has been notoriously myopic in its outlook and young players doesn’t always get its opportunity when experience can easily be bought in the market. Will the owners, the fans and media buy into a long game that transforms Manchester United, and if it does happen, will United have a profound influence on the English game once more? It could be there’s more at stake than the next managerial appointment at Manchester United.

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