“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 instinct.” For such a pioneering coach, Ralf Rangnick is not all that keen on coaching. ‘Interim’ is his preferred managerial prefix. Rangnick was twice parachuted in to man the custom made clock designed to train RB Leipzig players to win the ball back within a prescribed time during his reign as the Red Bull footballing empire’s ideological spearhead. Now, The Professor, one of European football’s most underrated pioneers, is set for Manchester.
“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 stint as RB 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.” Upon stepping down having led Leipzig to promotion, an exhausted Rangnick reflected: “I’m looking forward to having more time for my family, friends, and especially my parents.”
The German’s begrudging attitude towards coaching resulted in the nickname ‘Reluctant Ralf’ but Rangnick’s has his reasons for avoiding full time coaching. In September 2011 Rangnick left Schalke citing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome after just 23 games in charge. “This decision was terribly difficult to make,” Rangnick told Schalke’s club website. “But my current energy levels are not sufficient to be successful nor enough to advance the team or the club.” Nevertheless, while Rangnick may struggle with the intensity of full time modern management, his aptitude for footballing theory has been consistently nuanced and quietly influential.
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 while his intelligent performance, and fashion sense, led to him being referred to as ‘The Professor’.
Rangnick’s playing style and of a more overarching footballing ideology came to define Red Bull Leipzig’s model following his arrival as sporting director in 2012. Rangnick cites former Bayer Leverkusen director, latterly a TV personality and businessman, Reiner Calmund’s ‘Three Cs’ as a key inspiration. “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.”
Although Rangnick was quick to defend his club, Red Bull were long criticized for using their sizable capital too freely and allegedly circumventing the Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule designed to keep the ownership and running of clubs largely in the hands of supporters. Taking a typically business-centric approach, Rangnick affirmed back in 2016 that “For me, that idea is old fashioned. 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.”
Rangnick’s ideas on capital extend into the second of the ‘Three Cs’ – concept, Rangnick’s term for a club’s broad identity. At Leipzig, regardless of their wages, players had limits on the type of car they could drive while more established players and those with families were 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.”
The players recruited were “willing to learn our style of play.” Rangnick explained. “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 wanting to develop.” During one pre-season Rangnick publicly criticised Nordi Mukiele, Jean-Kevin Augustin and Dayot Upamecano for a lack of professionalism in returning from their holidays unfit. Rangnick insists “most of all [younger players] need clear messages and consistency.”
The enigmatic Rangnick has a reputation for being strict. After Augustin and Mukiele were publicly admonished in Bild by their furious coach for using their phones before a Europa League game in 2018/19, a spinning ‘wheel of misfortune’ was used to determine their punishments with forfeits ranging from a spell as a stadium tour guide to having to buy small gifts for all 60 members of staff.
On the pitch, Leipzig’s footballing ideas have evolved from those Rangnick described on Das Aktuelle Sport Studio in the late nineties but the aggressive press remains, the merits of which Rangnick was able to convince Red Bull co-owner Dietrich 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,” he says. “Sideways and backward passes are not so much in demand. The aim is to develop teams with no individuals.” That system, Rangnick remarks, is in direct opposition to the possession based play which had become increasingly prevalent at the start of the last decade. “The  World Cup has shown you can forget about ball ownership as an end in itself,” Rangnick told Suddeutsche, “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.”
Leipzig’s spectacular rise over the last decade, much of it led by Rangnick – albeit backed by considerable resources, proves that Rangnick fulfills the third of his criteria for success; competence. When Rangnick joined in 2012 Leipzig were a fourth tier club and he later personally led the club to promotion from the second division during his first spell as manager. “He’s the sporting motor of our club and is fundamental to our future development,” explained then RBL 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’.”
Rangnick’s four and a half years in charge of the similarly upwardly mobile Hoffenheim between 2006 and 2010 may be his outstanding achievement. Although admittedly also enjoying financial support from software giant SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim were playing in the Regionalliga upon Rangnick’s arrival but back to back promotions had the club in the Bundesliga by the start of the 2008/09 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.
In recent years, having left Red Bull finally last July, Rangnick has been leading Lokomotiv Moscow’s sporting project as Manager of Sports and Development. He also held extensive talks over becoming AC Milan’s new coach last year. However, Rangnick’s demeanor, which falls somewhere between supremely confident and oppressively aloof, irked Paolo Maldini to such an extent that Milan pulled out at the last moment.
After a successful career and with Rangnick defining his philosophy in an interview with The Coaches Voice as “fast, proactive, attacking, counter-attacking, counter-pressing and exciting” – one seemingly was suited to the club. Manchester United fans may be wondering why the 63-year-old German, the heightened stresses of the Premier League aside, isn’t yet being considered for the permanent role.
Fortunately for Reluctant Ralf, however, the ticking clock on his time at Old Trafford, as it stands, has a set end date. Nevertheless his ideals, fierce rigour and possibly his overarching philosophy, with a two year consultancy contract being discussed, could make a lasting impact whether the clock stops at the end of the season or not.