“I am of course fully aware that they are looking for a new manager, maybe if they ask me we will see,” Ralf Rangnick offered during his first press conference at Manchester United on December 3, 2021. He spoke with intelligence, humor and clarity for 28 minutes in the Old Trafford press room, the first time reporters had been there since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Maybe if they ask my opinion like you said and everything goes well and I help develop the team, I could make the same recommendation that I made in Leipzig twice. and tell them to stay and keep working with me! But it’s all hypothetical, I can’t talk about it now. It’s about winning the next game and that’s the goal.
Rangnick had his peak at the club in week one. His side won that opener 1-0 and in the first half of their home opener against Crystal Palace United used their 4-2-2-2 plan and played well, albeit late in the second half to break the team of Patrick Vieira. More wins followed for a side that had cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job, but United never convinced.
He got the job after extensive interviews with John Murtough and Darren Fletcher. The only other candidate to get a second interview was former Roma, Marseille and Lyon boss Rudi Garcia, who had a good record as a firefighter at big clubs.
Rangnick’s appointment was well received by United fans. A significant number doubted Solskjaer’s tactical savvy and suggested someone with more of us could make the most of the star names.
We are now so far from Rangnick’s first press conference. He had no say in the appointment of Erik ten Hag, not in the move of United’s two main scouts. It is a peripheral figure and has been since the first month. Yesterday, before the end of United’s season, he was announced as Austria’s new manager.
Whatever his merits as a problem solver and project builder, he is unconvinced as United manager in the caretaker job which still has three games to play. There are mitigating factors – he didn’t expect to lose three coaches in the weeks following his arrival in Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna and Martyn Pert and the replacements have failed to impress the players no matter how hard those coaches tried. From the stands to the locker room, United is anything but.
Rangnick’s side have won two out of 11, are set to miss out on Champions League football and have so many out of form players that they are worrying fans. There are protests at games over Glazers ownership, Rangnick’s honesty means he speaks of the virtues of United’s main rivals, as he calls his players every week – and many fans love him for that. After all, they’re underperforming relative to their talent and pay, but these players don’t like being called out by their boss any more than any other worker.
There’s a certain self-preservation in what he does, though. Rangnick is never at fault, although he is the manager, the one responsible for making the voices of the players heard. He will be judged on results like any other manager and so far they haven’t been good enough. That he was surprised by the level of the Premier League shows how little he knew. His team failed to beat sides near the bottom of the table – Burnley, Watford, Newcastle United, Everton. It’s really not good enough. Yes, he’ll tell you the players aren’t good enough, which they aren’t, but that’s his job too.
Rangnick did all the talking here – and in a calm, intelligent way. Perception and image matter – and hers is urban, erudite and positive. He’s in a show and he knows it. Behind closed doors, it may be different. After the defeat at Arsenal last weekend, he spoke little to his players in the locker room.
United have remained tight-lipped about their role. The team was supposed to train after the Chelsea game on Friday, with players due to play for recovery work, but Rangnick canceled Thursday’s session and called it a day off. That day he was announced as the next manager of Austria, the 34th ranked team in the world. Perhaps international football will suit a man who has spent little time in the day-to-day running of football for the past decade.
He said he would continue to consult for United, matching the two roles. United have other consultants working for the club, but that’s such an open and ambiguous term.
You can be sure his opinions would be more in demand had he led United past Atletico Madrid, rather than into one of Spain’s worst performances of the season in the first leg. Some players felt the preparation for this match was poor, with a lack of work on form ahead of a difficult game. Somehow United earned a draw in Madrid thanks to a goal from Anthony Elanga, a player Rangnick identified in a few training sessions as part of the first team. He also saw him as a player who would follow his instructions on the pitch when others would not.
United are not an easy club to manage or play for and Rangnick presides over a divided, injured dressing room where players accuse each other of not training hard enough. Nor are they his players, but a collection brought in by various managers during an ineffective recruitment strategy. This recruitment strategy has been further disrupted ahead of a vital summer after Athleticism revealed yesterday that Matt Judge, United’s director of football negotiations, has resigned, is working his notice and will not be involved in the transfer window.
But an interim manager can rarely expect to land a perfect job.
Every mistake – and there are many – is examined on television by exasperated legendary former players who enjoyed highly successful playing, if not managerial, careers. At half-time in a recent match, a United manager told the players they were giving the pundits every reason to criticize them.
United have made so many bad decisions over the past decade. Rangnick may have looked like a smart date at the time and the season is still not over, but with three league games to play and cup interests long gone, it looks like a another mistake to add to the list.
(Top photo: Getty Images)