“The ticking can be irritating for them at first, but we’ve noticed that this kind of training can affect players in just a few weeks. They adjust their style of play and it becomes an instinct.” For such a pioneering coach, Ralf Rangnick is not all that keen on coaching. Nevertheless, the custom made clock designed to train Leipzig players to win the ball back within a prescribed time limit is again being manned this season, somewhat reluctantly, by the enigmatic German.
With previous manager Ralph Hasenhuttl not willing to play placeholder for Hoffenheim’s coveted coach Julian Nagelsmann, who will be parachuted in as RB Leipzig manager this summer, for the second time during his six years as the Red Bull footballing empire’s ideological spearhead, Rangnick found himself in the Leipzig dugout at the start of the season. “It’s not like I wanted it, but when several coaches with whom we could imagine cooperating could not join us for different reasons we came to this decision,” explained Rangnick to Abendzeitung before his previous stint as Leipzig head coach in 2015.
“The job is exhausting… I was sporting director for three years at two different clubs in two different countries and in two different leagues. That went very well, no problem! But if you’re a coach, all your thoughts are really only about the daily business and the next game.” A year later, upon giving way to Hasenhuttl, having led RBL to promotion, an exhausted Rangnick reflected: “I’m looking forward to having more time for my family, friends, and especially my parents, whom I’ve rarely seen in the last 10 months. It has not been possible to be [back home] in Backnang for several days at a time.” The German’s begrudging attitude towards coaching has since resulted in the nickname ‘Reluctant Ralf’.
However, Rangnick has his reasons for avoiding the stresses of full time coaching. In September 2011 Rangnick left Schalke citing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome after just 23 games in charge. “After long and careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need a break,” Rangnick told Schalke’s club website. “This decision was terribly difficult to make but my current energy levels are not sufficient to be successful nor enough to advance the team or the club,” he admitted.
Nevertheless, while Rangnick may not be suited to the rigors of full time modern management, his aptitude for footballing theory remains vibrant and nuanced.
Rangnick’s reputation was first established in December 1998. In the process of guiding then second tier Ulm to a second successive promotion, Rangnick appeared on ZDF’s weekly sports show ‘Das Aktuelle Sport Studio’. Years ahead of time, in what is now considered something of a legendary tour-de-force complete with oversized suit and spectacles, Rangnick explained in typically brusk and self-assured fashion how his Ulm side pressed their opponents and won the ball back so quickly. Although a little routine by today’s standards, his style would evolve into the now typical German mode of pressing. Rangnick’s intelligent performance, and fashion sense, led to him being referred to as ‘The Professor’.
Rangnick’s keen focus on konzept (concept) both of playing style and of a more overarching footballing ideology has since come to define both his career and Red Bull Leipzig’s model following his arrival as sporting director back in 2012. Rangnick cites former Bayer Leverkusen director, current German TV personality and businessman, Reiner Calmund’s ‘Three Cs’ as key inspiration in driving the Red Bull project. “I learned that capital, labor and land are the three factors in production,” explained Calmund to Finanzen.net in 2014. “It’s a bit different in football, that’s the ‘3 Cs’ principle; capital, competence and concept.”
“If those three things come together, then you can be successful,” Rangnick told Deutsche Welle, “if you only have one or two of them, it’s more difficult.” Capital is something Red Bull Leipzig have in abundance but Rangnick has been quick to defend the considerable backing of the Austrian drinks company and play down their importance in the Leipzig project. “I’m not saying that without Mr Mateschitz’s [Red Bull founder, Dietrich] money we’d be where we are now. Of course, money is necessary and important to implement certain things.” Rangnick told Der Tagesspiegel in 2016, “But take the two clubs relegated last season; Hannover had the highest budget in the club’s history [and] Stuttgart were probably, in the salary table, among the first seven or eight teams. Without competence and concept, a lot of money does not automatically guarantee you success.”
However, Red Bull have long been criticized for what some see as the flagrant use of their deep pockets and circumventing the Bundesliga’s famous 50+1 rule designed to keep the ownership and running of clubs largely in the hands of supporters and members. In an interview for DW.com, former German international Thomas Berthold was even bold enough to ask, on behalf of a reader: “How does it feel to be nothing but a marketing tool for a soda company and the most hated club in Germany?” To which Rangnick responded: “I think there are fewer RB haters than there were during our time in the second division. We are very happy with our sponsor, but we never think for one minute about how we can sell more cans [of Red Bull]. What drives and motivates us is developing players. We aren’t a marketing tool.”
Often regarded as the basis for the Bunndesliga’s fan driven success, Rangnick controversially goes as far to reject the importance of 50+1, taking a typically business-centric approach. “I think the number of members of the club is obsolete and irrelevant. For me, that concept is old fashioned,” Rangnick affirmed back in 2016. “Borussia Dortmund has 150,000 members but for the strategic decisions the club makes, they have no influence. Do you think Porsche, Mercedes or DHL would ask their stakeholders what they should do next ahead of every decision they make? The same holds true in football – it’s about the right people on the board making the right decisions for the club.”
The German coach later claimed that the rejection of Leipzig’s philosophy and German football’s continued preoccupation with the 50+1 rule are a product of the national psyche rather than anything rational. “When old values come to be developed, it takes a bit of time, especially in the emotional business of football,” explained Rangnick. “In Germany we have a hard time with innovations. There is no nation in which people are as over-insured as Germany. The German tries to hedge against everything possible. I imagine that we polarize with our innovations.”
Rangnick’s ideas on capital extend into concept too and are, some Bundesliga fans would argue, oddly contradictory with the bullish nature by which the club has been run under Red Bull ownership. Regardless of their wages, players have limits on the type of car they can drive while more established players and those with families are given a little more scope. “It’s all about a certain modesty,” Rangnick explained, “you don’t have to purchase a big car as a status symbol right after you have signed your first big contract.” Cars aside, attitude both personal and professional is crucial to Rangnick’s wider ideology with “particular attention to [players] mentality and character traits”.
Those recruited “are willing to learn our style of play. We asked ourselves; ‘What style do we want to play?’ After that we scouted and signed the players who fulfilled our requirements… they all came here with the idea of wanting to develop.” During pre-season Rangnick publicly criticized Nordi Mukiele, Jean-Kevin Augustin and Dayot Upamecano for a lack of professionalism in returning from their holidays unfit, complaining that Upamecano was overweight and “everyone can see it” while worrying that Augustin might “fall back into old patterns”. Rangnick insists “most of all [younger players] need clear messages and consistency.”
Leipzig’s footballing ideas have evolved from those Rangnick described on Das Aktuelle Sport Studio in the late 90s but the aggressive press remains, the merits of which Rangnick was able to convince Mateschitz during a five hour conversation back in 2012 before taking the director of football role at both RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg. Rangnick prioritises “aggressive forward defending and pressing, playing directly to the front.”
“Sideways and backward passes are not so much in demand. The aim is to develop teams with no individuals.” The system, Rangnick remarks, is in direct opposition to the possession based play which had become increasingly prevalent at the start of the decade. “The World Cup has shown you can forget about ball ownership as an end in itself,” Rangnick told Suddeutsche in August, “This is my old theme, you need speed, depth and wit and you have to move into sixth and seventh gear otherwise you will not score goals.”
This attitude is now ingrained at Leipzig, in the senior side and beyond, “We have consistently followed a path with a clear, consistent style of play, starting from the youngest, the under 8s up to the pros.” Rangnick explained in the same interview. “We have coaches who can convey this idea, and we only hire young players aged between 17 and 24.” Youth is a strong theme in Rangnick’s running of the club.
Of the current Leipzig squad, midfielder Stefan Ilsanker is the oldest senior player at just 29 while the team that lined up against Dortmund on the opening day of this season averaged just 23.2 years old. Meanwhile his thirst for innovation within his concept continues, telling Tagespiegel: “I am convinced that there is room for improvement in the training of cognitive abilities. It will be about finding the right solutions when under high pressure and in confined spaces.”
Despite their wealth, RB Leipzig’s rise has been spectacular and unquestionably proves that Rangnick fulfils the third of his criteria for success; competence. When Rangnick joined the club in 2012 Leipzig were a fourth tier club, coaching the club to promotion from the second division in his first spell as manager. “He’s the sporting motor of our club and is fundamental to our future development,” explained RBL’s CEO Oliver Mintzlaf who isn’t the only one to appreciate Rangnick’s talents. “When we won [back in 2008] 4-1 at Dortmund with Hoffenheim.” Rangnick told Abendzeitung, “[Jurgen] Klopp said to me after the game; ‘The way Hoffenheim plays, we also want to play that way at some point’.”
On top of his success with Ulm, Leipzig and in winning the DFB Pokal at Schalke in 2011, Rangnick’s four and a half years in charge of the similarly upwardly mobile Hoffenheim between 2006 and 2010 may be his outstanding achievement, whose story draws parallels with RBL. Although admittedly also enjoying financial support from software giant SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim were playing in the Regionalliga upon Rangnick’s arrival at the Rhein-Necker Arena but back to back promotions (the national third division ‘3. Liga’ wasn’t established until 2008) had the club in the Bundesliga by the start of the 08/09 campaign. Incredibly, having been a ninth tier side less than two decades previously, Hoffenheim were top of the Bundesliga that Christmas. Eventually finishing seventh, Rangnick resigned a year later, perhaps unsurprisingly, over what he saw as a lack of competence as midfield general Luiz Gustavo was sold to Bayern Munich without his knowledge.
This season is proving to be another Rangnick success story. Favourites for a return to the Champions League, Leipzig sat fourth and were leading the chasing pack by 5 points in early February. Despite a disappointing Europa League exit (and defeats to RB Salzburg perhaps perversely a further sign of Rangnick’s success) their Bundesliga form has been unerringly consistent, especially at home while Rangnick has remained characteristically strict and enigmatic. After Augustin and Mukiele were publicly admonished in Bild by their furious coach for using their phones before the Salzburg game, a spinning “wheel of misfortune” was used to determine their punishments; forfeits ranging from a spell as a stadium tour guide to having to buy small gifts for all 60 members of staff.
At Leipzig however, themes of Kapital, Konzept and Kompetenz will all remain thoroughly ensconced for the foreseeable future but the club, assures Rangnick, “still has a long way to go.” Fortunately for Reluctant Ralf, irritating as it may be, the ticking will come to an end sooner rather than later on his spell in the Red Bull Arena dugout. But with natural successor Julien Nagelsmann incoming and The Professor’s concepts ever-evolving RB Leipzig’s rise may have only just begun.
This piece was extracted from the Roligan Journal, an exquisite and free magazine on world football. Download your copy here.