Can Rangnick Build A New Structure At Old Trafford Before He Gets Beaten By The Old One?

The news that Ralf Rangnick was the man chosen to come into the heavily scrutinised interim manager position at Manchester United was met with some added skepticism – was this the biggest club in the world finally behaving like it?

It’s been a damaging week for the club. As Sunday’s news of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s departure broke, there was an air of disbelief as they announced a structural plan without any indication of who the temporary or permanent successors would be.

It was farcical, and almost a direct contradiction to the statement that was made about it being a reluctant decision as well as being a slap in the face to Solskjaer, considering all the emphasis that has been placed on the value of continuity.

Solskjaer had to go. Decisions and performances dictate that. When Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho were sacked there was an argument between some fans that you would back the experience of the coach over the contemporary quality of the squad. Many would have preferred those manager to stay with control over making sweeping changes.

This time around, as loved as Solskjaer is, you couldn’t make the same argument. Ole surpassed any expectations of him from when he was initially hired.

All of those concerns about his inexperience and the relegation with Cardiff were countered by a strong argument – a third place and second place finish in consecutive seasons, comfortably the best since Sir Alex retired. The track record of semi-final failures was being used to criticise him – and the penalty defeat to Villarreal when he finally made a final was not much better.

Should a Premier League title have been delivered for £400m + spent in transfer fees? The same argument was made for Mourinho three years ago with a slightly lower spend (we can say equivalent accounting for slight inflation). It’s not a fair argument, because if you’re judging on transfer fees, then City should always be in the position to win everything.

The middle ground is should more have been expected, and the answer is yes. Should more have been expected from Solskjaer? Not necessarily. He gave it everything.

Should more have been expected from Manchester United? Absolutely – because the resources argument goes only so far, as Liverpool have proved. So titles might have been too big an ask. But trophies were expected. Better was expected of the club. And that’s why the change had to happen.

There was a dinner at Old Trafford last night honouring former players lost over the last eighteen months and it was clear that the mood was more sombre than optimistic. Conversations were quite anxious. The Van Gaal and Mourinho regimes had completely disconnected the club from its heritage.

This has been derided in the ‘cultural reboot’ sense but those five and a half years saw an influx of staff who knew nothing about the inner workings of the club, and yet came in with new and unfamiliar practices whilst at the same time preaching the standards of Manchester United and not knowing them. Some of the methods were archaic and had to be modernised.

The process of fixing it has been gradual. It has had to be. Staff were being identified – an ongoing process, with contracts and notice periods to be served at their respective clubs before coming to United. The restoration was gradual but it was happening. The investment at this level was not insignificant in terms of bodies and finance. Now, with everything paused, there is a new air of uncertainty.

Manager’s jobs are usually determined by what happens in the first team and Solskjaer can have no excuses. If you were to be generous you might say he’s the first victim of standards that he helped to raise back to what the club is traditionally known for. No longer would it be acceptable to finish sixth and qualify for the Champions League via the Europa League. United were expected to challenge this season – and they are not. Solskjaer has gone.

Was that a fair expectation? Not really. Every reasonable supporter knows that it would be a tough ask for any manager to take this squad with such a weak midfield and have it winning the title. It wasn’t going to happen with Klopp, Guardiola, Tuchel, Conte or Solskjaer.

A more frank and honest assessment of the situation was that Solskjaer’s inexperience told when it came to taking United to the higher level of challenging – in getting players to do something greater than you expected, such as Liverpool’s relentless start when they won the league, or even Ferguson’s last league triumph.

There’s no disgrace in that – he’d exceeded the expectation of most – but United were undeniably in a position where they had to make a change, so they did, even though the way they went about it seemed strange.

Was he let down by the board? You have to say yes, just like his predecessors. It was a sign of their true intentions when they signed Ronaldo and didn’t give that money for a midfielder. They cashed in on the value of the club skyrocketing and took that money for themselves. They left Solskjaer with the accusation – why didn’t he buy a midfielder instead of Ronaldo?

It’s their track record. They did it last summer, after complaining about COVID and the financial implications. Solskjaer had finished strongly to get into the Champions League and the board were preaching the values of stability and consistency and long-term planning.

It was clear big investment was still needed to make the next step. It was not forthcoming, and after United started the season poorly, out came the chequebook for the rash signings. Cavani, available all summer for nothing. Telles, Pellestri, Amad. So much for long-term planning. Solskjaer did well to finish second – but Liverpool’s injury crisis and Chelsea’s improvement indicated that they were probably punching above their weight.

This is no excuse for Solskjaer. It’s an example of the track record of the club. When Mourinho finished second shortly after signing a new three-year deal, it was obvious that second place was nowhere near challenging. At least one centre-back was needed – probably two. None came. At least one good winger was needed.

None were signed. Fred and Diogo Dalot signed, and immediately it was clear that there was no serious intention to move from this position of strength and challenge for the title – deflating for Mourinho, as we saw all too well, and also for fans, though by now some had become too preoccupied with their disillusion over the manager to hold the board accountable. Sound familiar?

And wind the clock back even further to Louis van Gaal’s reign, where we were sold on the promise of a modern coaching structure for Ryan Giggs to inherit after two years.

Van Gaal, hired at 63, left after two years where he had largely failed to implement this modern style on or off the pitch – but Giggs was not his successor, because Woodward had become distracted by the availability of Mourinho. Sound familiar?

Louis van Gaal was globally known as a legendary coach due to his remarkable success with Ajax in the 1990s. Ralf Rangnick is not as well known to casual fans of football. To those familiar with his work, it’s much fairer to say this man is better placed to deliver his famed style of play than Van Gaal was to deliver total football. He is more a teacher than a student of the philosophy he believes.

The theory of Ralf Rangnick taking over sounds great in the same vein as the Van Gaal appointment because the prospect of instant improvement and great football is enticing.

The reality of Van Gaal was alienating popular players and clashing with key influential figures. We thought total football and he thought remove instinct – selling Rafael to sign Darmian. Signing Di Maria and instantly finding him difficult to manage.

It’s worth bearing in mind that we all look at the gegenpressing style and think that it’s an indication that all of our weak areas will have to be addressed. For that style to be successful you need wide men who work hard, and full-backs and midfielders who are tireless and everywhere.

There’s no guarantee that Rangnick will see it that way. Or that he’ll even want to do it the same way as he has done before. Or that, at 63, his interpretation of how to play is actually modern anymore. Or that it will be complementary to the structure that has been so heavily invested in. Or that he can adapt as seamlessly to English football as his proteges. Are United simply just reacting three years too late to the latest trend again?

There is the other point. Everyone is celebrating the prospect of Rangnick refusing the first offer of a contract and demanding greater control. That’s again great in theory but the reality is that in practice we have owners and executives notorious for their handcuffing and interference and the difficult ground we’re navigating on following what feels like broken trust from the promises made after May’s protests makes us only more cautious about feeling anything will or even can change. Rangnick has a history of taking the decision to move on if things become too much. He’ll find the pressure at Old Trafford, both internal and external, to be unlike anything he’s experienced.

What is Rangnick’s mandate for the six or seven months in charge? Will he be allowed money to spend in January or is the investment in his quality as a coach meant to compensate as an alternative? How can that be fully effective when most of the coaching staff remains the same as it was before Sunday?

If we finish in the Champions League spaces, does that make this a successful campaign? Will the immediate future after that be Rangnick’s vision or a successor? Some of these questions will be answered by the man himself, surely, upon appointment. What he can’t answer is how quickly and how heavily the owners will restrict that plan as soon as it becomes a little too uncomfortable for them.

I am writing this with a tone of apprehension because of the string of broken promises and the string of managers who have been let down by the owners – if their failures are all on their own shoulders, then all of those failures were still instigated by some intervention from the owners or Ed Woodward.

But I am cautiously excited about the appointment. In theory it might well be the best that the club could have made, and I do feel that it’s better timed to do this now than it would have been straight after Mourinho because of the number of issues at the club that would have needed to be addressed before the new structures (which definitely did not suit the majority of that squad, nor the infrastructure at the club) could be implemented.

And, like Van Gaal, we can only know if it’s too late a reactive mood to the changing trend of the game with the benefit of hindsight. I suppose if you’re winning games and they’re being won in an entertaining fashion then you can find the strands of that to attach it to whatever you deem to be symbolic of the club.

At least in Rangnick United are approaching the man who the other best modern coaches at present – Klopp and Tuchel – have learned from. It stands to reason there will be a trick or two in the book that he knows and they don’t.

It also follows that a new system like this will take time to implement. Tuchel’s success – and we’ll call it that, despite him only being in charge for a year or so – started with some fairly dull football but that quickly changed.

And who can forget Klopp’s celebration of a 2-2 home draw with West Brom and that fairly long period where his points per game record was lower than David Moyes at Man Utd? Now it’s arguably the greatest modern coaching success in English football in the post-Ferguson era.

So some form of patience will surely still be necessary. The supporters (most of the sane ones, anyway) will show it. Will the club? That’s the biggest question of all.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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