Ralf Rangnick’s Manchester United: How he’ll deal with Ronaldo conundrum, philosophy, tactics, transfers, more


Manchester United’s new interim manager Ralf Rangnick brings a clear philosophy and style to Old Trafford, but it’s markedly different to Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s approach. 

For now, Michael Carrick will remain in charge until Rangnick’s work visa arrives as they push to have their interim boss in place for Sunday’s Premier League clash with Crystal Palace with a European game away to Young Boys (available to watch on Paramount+) next on the fixture list.

Looking ahead, we examine how United’s players will adapt over the next six months.

What is Rangnick’s philosophy?

Rangnick is often dubbed the “Godfather of Gegenpressing” — a style of soccer he passed on to Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, both of whom deployed it to win the UEFA Champions League.

Gegenpressing means “counter-pressing” in German. The basic aim is to try and win the ball back immediately after you lose it.

“What we actually want to play is extremely pronounced pressing,” a 40-year-old Rangnick told German sports broadcaster ZDF back in 1998. “We want to try to always attack and outnumber the opposing ball owner with at least one man. It is simply important that the players also have a basic structure where they know that every player really has his back covered.”

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Rangnick demands his teams play with high energy, but also work collectively — on and off the ball. His teams essentially set zonal marking-led and intricately-crafted traps to win back the ball.

Once in possession, Rangnick will expect Manchester United to move forward pretty swiftly. He loves to get a shot away within 10 seconds before the defense is set. In that respect, his philosophy is a bit like an NBA team prowling for fast break points while striving to avoid a half-court game.

Rangnick heavily influenced Klopp, who called him “an outstanding coach”. The pair will go head-to-head on the touchline again this season.
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What will he do first?

Rangnick has been brought in to conceive then oversee long-term strategy and development at Manchester United, even when the new permanent manager replaces him. That’s why part of his contract includes a two-year consultancy after his interim spell ends.

Once Rangnick finds his feet — a pretty daunting task at United — he’ll likely start by implementing his “three Cs.”

“The first C is concept,” he told “The Coaches’ Voice.” “This focuses on the importance of implementing a specific DNA into the club – particularly the style of football we want the team to play. Consistent orientation towards that style in all areas of the club was where we put our emphasis from Day 1.

“The second C is for competence. We try to find the best possible people for each job, guaranteeing competence across the club.

“The third and final C is for capital — or cash. Capital is a limited-success factor. Alone, it is far from enough.”

What formation will he play?

Rangnick essentially has three main tactical choices: Stick with Manchester United’s current 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 (a formation Ole Gunnar Solskjaer favored) or to revert to his trademark 4-2-2-2.

The 4-3-3 system isn’t too problematic to inherit, but Rangnick will want to rigidly define roles within in. He was content with this style at Hoffenheim, where he achieved successive promotions to the Bundesliga.

A 4-3-3 still allows Cristiano Ronaldo to lead the line and ensures youth and pace around him, but the front three would be spread a little wider than Rangnick prefers.

Adopting this style undoubtedly requires United’s midfield three to be disciplined. Fred, in particular, must define himself as a dedicated defensive midfielder since Rangnick really views the 4-3-3 as more of a 4-1-2-3. The holding midfielder is the cog that locks the whole system together. 

It’s not a role Fred has looked comfortable in since joining from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2018. This season he’s a won just 40% of his duels and has been dribbled past almost 30 times. Only Everton’s Allan has a worse rate.

Fred loses more duels than he wins.
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The 4-2-3-1 formation feels like a slightly stronger fit, especially with Rangnick well aware he’s only got six months to make an impact. Two holding midfielders – probably Fred and Scott McTominay – offer extra protection to a leaky back four that’s conceded 22 Premier League goals this season. The formation also affords Bruno Fernandes plenty of freedom and plays to United’s current squad strengths.

A switch to 4-2-2-2 is clearly the most intriguing. It’s a system Rangnick instilled across the Red Bull soccer group, including at Leipzig where Jesse Marsch still uses it to great effect.

This system relies on a versatile midfield four working in tandem behind a more traditional front two. High-energy box-to-box midfielders are paramount, so it would suit both Donny van de Beek and Jadon Sancho. Sancho and Marcus Rashford wouldn’t play as wide, either, since the 4-2-2-2 has a far narrower shape.

It’s also perfect for attack-minded wingbacks, who provide the width, and Rangnick has options in both Alex Telles and Luke Shaw. Shaw has struggled for consistency this season, but he’ll be hoping to recapture his 2020-21 form where he clocked five EPL assists and scored England’s opener in the 2020 European Championship Final against Italy.

What needs fixing?

Manchester United are statistically the worst team in the Premier League at both tackling and errors leading to goals.

They sit bottom three in interceptions (19th-ranked), recoveries (19th) and goals conceded (18th). They don’t exert much pressure in the final third, and when they try this tactic it has backfired. “Risk-reward” plays just haven’t come off this campaign. 

In stark contrast, Rangnick’s last spell as a manager in 2018-19 saw Leipzig top almost every category Manchester United are currently bottom of en route to an impressive third-place finish in the Bundesliga. 

What this demonstrates is Rangnick will lay solid foundations, starting with defensive discipline. That doesn’t just mean building from the back, but defending from the front, too. And to do both, United’s players must be drilled to work more fluidly off the ball in order to reap the rewards when on it.

1st

Tackles

20th

1st

Successful pressures

19th

2nd

Pressures in final third

17th

1st

Recoveries

19th

1st

Interceptions

19th

1st

Errors leading to shots

20th

1st Goals conceded 18th

Where does this leave Ronaldo?

It’s easy to conclude Ronaldo’s days are numbered at Old Trafford. After all, Rangnick loves young players. The Leipzig squad he left in 2019 had an average age of just 23.5. This included a 22-year-old Timo Werner, whose 16 Bundesliga goals in Rangnick’s final season set him on his path to Chelsea.

Thirty-year-old-plus footballers definitely set off alarm bells in Rangnick’s head — and they ring even louder if the player doesn’t press. That’s all obviously bad news for Ronaldo.

Ronaldo started on the bench in Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at Chelsea.
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The notion Rangnick won’t be Ronaldo-reliant was certainly fueled when Carrick benched the 36-year-old for the 1-1 EPL draw at Chelsea. Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville posited Rangnick secretly picked the team, although this was firmly denied by Carrick.

But the fact is, Ronaldo has huge value to Rangnick and can clearly adapt to a gegenpressing style. Plus, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner won’t even really be asked to press. He’ll be encouraged to make tactical movements, like blocking off passing lanes, in order to set traps. It’s unlikely he’ll suddenly be told to track back or tackle more – areas he’s sometimes criticized for – and Rangnick’s game plan can work perfectly well without him doing so.

All that said, Rangnick will probably be tasked with slowly or subtly reducing Ronaldo’s minutes due to his age. It will be a lot easier if he does this before the new permanent manager comes in – and, of course, that appointment could still be Rangnick himself. Sources tell CBS Sports that the 63-year-old is very open to taking the job full-time if everything goes according to plan over the next six months.

Who might Rangnick sign?

Rangnick is likely to start by bolstering United’s defense. Barcelona center-back Ronald Araujo could plausibly be his first marquee signing for a fee of around $90 million. There is no doubt United need another center-back.

The 22-year-old Uruguayan is a “front-foot” defender, who sticks like glue to his opponents. Rangnick would need to improve his composure on the ball, though, and get him more comfortable with zonal marking.

The German could also turn to Nordi Mukiele – a player he’s already worked with at Leipzig. The 24-year-old won his first French cap in September in a World Cup qualifier against Finland. To some extent he’s keeping Tyler Adams out of the side, at least at right-wingback, although the American can play in defensive midfield, too.

Mukiele is just an intelligent full back with lightening pace. He thrives when given attacking responsibility. All these qualities will be music to Rangnick’s ears. 

Adams could reach 100 appearances for Leipzig this season.
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Manchester United’s new interim manager will no doubt be shortlisting defensive midfielders, too. Denis Zakaria, 25, is one name on United’s radar this January. His Borussia Monchengladbach contract expires this summer and he’d certainly bring a bit of physicality to the middle of the park and even chip in with the odd goal.

Up front, United already have a wealth of young and vibrant attacking options, but it’s also known Rangnick admires Dortmund’s 18-year-old sensation Jude Bellingham, who he admitted to scouting in the past.

“Bellingham. He’s an absolute top player,” Rangnick told The Athletic last year. “He’s one of the best. I have rarely seen a 17-year-old playing at such a level. We scouted him for 18 months at Leipzig. He’s simply extraordinary.”

Nonetheless, Bellingham’s reported $150 million price-tag, and more aggressive current interest from Liverpool, make an imminent swoop unlikely.

Prior to Rangnick’s arrival, United were also linked with a January move for Real Madrid forward Vinicius Jr., who has nine goals in 14 LaLiga appearances this season. CBS Sports understands a transfer to Old Trafford is pretty unlikely. Should Vinicius leave the Bernabeu, Paris Saint-Germain would be his preferred destination.

Whoever Rangnick signs, he’s going to have to act quickly and boldly during the January transfer window — an interesting new challenge for a manager far more used to longer-term planning. His teams may play with infectious frenzy, but he’s accustomed to operating more calmly off the field. The question remains whether he’ll have time to do so during a whirlwind, but no doubt exciting, six-months at Manchester United. 





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