Manchester United roundtable: What to expect from Ralf Rangnick as coach, including how he’ll handle Ronaldo

The latest chapter of the Manchester United soap opera has come to an end. The club has settled on Ralf Rangnick to be its interim manager. Though, of course, nothing is ever simple. Rangnick and United have agreed on a relatively complicated deal which sees him taking over on the sidelines for the rest of this season before moving upstairs to take on consulting duties and help guide the team from the front office.

When one chapter closes, another opens, and as Ragnick prepares to take over United, there are still more questions than answers about how successful his tenure will be. So, we got some of our crack staff members together to talk through what the Rangnick era will look like at United and whether he’ll be successful either as a manager or as some sort of nebulously front-office consultant. Or both. Or neither! The world is full of endless possibilities. Let’s start with the most immediate question.

What will Ragnick’s Manchester United look like on the field?

Mike Goodman: For all the storm around United, it can sometimes be easy to forget that at the end of the day they need to play football matches. At least in the immediate term Rangnick is going to be judged on whether the players he inherits play better or worse than they did under his predecessor Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. We know a little bit about Rangnick. During his time at RB Leipzig and before it at Hoffenheim, Rangnick liked to press. It was his calling card. First and foremost, those teams sought to disrupt what the opposition was trying to do, which is pretty different than Solskjaer’s approach of being relatively indifferent to what an opponent wanted to do in possession and instead focusing (increasingly unsuccessfully) on stopping them from using that possession to get shots.

How quickly he’ll be able to execute that change will be anybody’s guess. But a successful Rangnick United side will be aggressive at breaking up play, and that requires all 10 outfield players to contribute to the cause of harrying opponents across the field. Rangnick has been an extremely consistent defensive manager throughout his career, but I’m curious to see what you guys think he might do on the attacking side of the ball, where his game plans seem to have been a little more varied, depending on what kind of talent he had at his disposal.

James Benge: I suspect it helps that, for the most part, the forwards he is inheriting are all suited to a more broken field style of play. In recent years, United have been at their most exhilarating and dangerous when the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and latterly Mason Greenwood have been carving up teams on counter attacks. It was one of the reasons that signing Jadon Sancho made so much sense, because in the Bundesliga he excelled at making quick reads at pace.

If we go back to how Rangnick’s sides played at RB Leipzig, it is easy to see the theoretical similarities. That side, which finished third in the 2018-19 Bundesliga, moved up the pitch like a stabbed rat, advancing the ball toward goal by an average of 2.04 meters per second. No side has been quicker in German football over the last five years and that team did not have the impressive athletes at the top end of the pitch that United have. I guess the questions I have stem rather more from what happens in the middle of the pitch, Old Trafford’s own twilight zone.

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Chuck Booth: Like Antonio Conte at Tottenham, there’s a clear difference between how Rangnick will want United to play and how they will play during this transition period. They want to press but have been at their best countering, it’s also up for debate on if the team is mobile enough to work in a Rangnick system. In the past, not only has Rangnick questioned Luke Shaw’s ability, but he has generally worked with younger players than what will be at his disposal at United. There needs to be flexibility both on the manager and players part as you can’t set up a full pressing system in six months’ time, especially taking into account that he is taking over during a stretch that will see United play a game every three to four days until Jan. 3.

Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho likely have the most to gain from the transition due to their two-way ability in open space, but Rangnick will have to integrate others or Champions League contention will be a pipe dream before the team truly gets to make additions over the summer. The quick passing plays that Rangnick wants to transition play is something that can be worked on, but the coordinated press will have to wait. If he tries to implement both at the same time, the defensive breakdowns will be fun to watch.

MG: Well … we’ve all managed to dance around a certain issue, so let’s not ignore it any longer.

What should Rangnick do with Ronaldo?

JB: Let’s be honest, he should probably do what Michael Carrick just did and bench him. Not all the time, not in the games where Manchester United are going to have all the ball and lots of opportunities to get it into the box. 

But when it really matters, United will not be able to defend from the front if the point of their press is Cristiano Ronaldo. According to fbref, there are 32 players who have played more than 270 minutes in the Premier League and average fewer pressures per 90 than Ronaldo’s 5.18. Nearly two-thirds are goalkeepers, the other 11 are center backs. Take the archetypal diffident presser, let’s call him Harry K. No, that’s too obvious. Let’s say H Kane. He averages 12.1 pressures per 90. Rangnick himself has said that a press only works if it is carried out by the entire team. Years and years of evidence suggest Ronaldo won’t do that.

Oh and by the way, yes, he scores goals, some of them masterclasses of finishing and many of them of at crucial junctures in games. But then it has been a while since United’s problem has been putting the ball in the net. Someone tell me I’m wrong.

CB: You’re not wrong but I also don’t think that benching Ronaldo for most games is the way to go unless Rangnick wants to be run out by the media and supporters. Any bad performance without Ronaldo leads to questions of why wasn’t he played and due to his finishing ability, Ronaldo can be useful to this United side in a pinch. A system needs to be created where he plays alongside someone who presses enough for the two of them, which Rashford or Greenwood can do and if the midfield is sorted out, one player not being involved in a coordinated press won’t destroy them.

There’s no getting around the fact that Ronaldo is a one dimensional player these days, but that dimension is something that can make a team extremely dangerous when used properly.

MG: See, I think there is some question about exactly how one dimensional he is. It’s been extreme this season, and not just defensive numbers, but passing involvement as well. But he wasn’t this disconnected last season. He was somewhat limited, sure, but it’s been a marked drop-off from Juventus to Manchester United. So the question to me is, how much of that drop has been Ronaldo getting older, changing leagues and just the natural decline that comes with age and moving to a physically more demanding league, and how much is it just simply that Ronaldo was playing for a friend and former teammate of his and wasn’t asked to do anything that he might have the slightest chance of objecting to?

If this is all Ronaldo can be then, yes, I think Rangnick will have to bench him in some important matches. Pressing of any variety simply won’t work with the lack of contribution of Ronaldo up front. But maybe we’ll see Rangnick get just enough out of Ronaldo’s game to get the most out of his still undeniable scoring ability.

Either way though, Ronaldo is Rangnick the manager’s problem. I’m curious what you guys think about Rangnick the consultant?

Will Rangnick drag United into the modern soccer age?

CB: This is where I want to say maybe? It’s weird that Rangnick is leaving his position at Lokomotiv Moscow so soon, but when United knocks, you usually answer. As a manager, the answer is no because you can only do so much in six months. But the two-year advisor role is where things get interesting. United hasn’t had an identity since Alex Ferguson left and that’s something that you’d think Rangnick can help implement if given enough time and power.

But the United board has also been reluctant to give this kind of power in the past, so I’m hesitant to say that Rangnick can do much of anything ahead of time. The ability is there though.

JB: I don’t really see this as something that’s within Rangnick’s power. If United are going to finally join the rest of European football and abandon the ancien regime of all powerful managers, then it has to be done across the club. If you’re simply going from a club that orbits Sir Alex Ferguson to one that orbits Rangnick, you have not achieved much.

But if there is a will to surround Rangnick, the head coach he eventually employs and the players with best-in-class minds across coaching, data, scouting and sports science, then United can be best in class somewhere other than the balance sheets and retweets. If I were trying to get to the stage as a big club, I’d hire Rangnick, so the omens look pretty good from where I’m sitting.

MG: This seems like the central tension of United right now. On the one hand, they’ve spent their entire post-Ferguson existence making terrible decisions. That suggests that even after hiring Rangnick they’ll keep making terrible decisions. On the other hand, Rangnick — a football-focused executive with experience in building teams — is the kind of decision United haven’t made since Ferguson retired. That seems to suggest that maybe they’re going something different now. Finally.

It’s impossible to predict whether Rangnick will be empowered to create a modern Manchester United. But what’s clear is that if empowered, he is one of the few people in world soccer that could do it. That’s something you never could have said about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Jose Mourinho before him. Maybe this will just be another way point along Manchester United’s long meandering journey from the top of the international pyramid, but maybe, just maybe it will be a turning point that years from now will mark the moment they began to turn things around. Is it likely? Maybe not. But it’s the first time in years that it’s at least possible.

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