Some people will point to Ralf Rangnick’s inexperience managing at the highest level, to the fact he has only managed for three of the past 11 seasons, and smugly say ‘I told you so’. But even those who had reservations about his appointment did not expect things to go quite this badly.
Manchester United have won 47% of their Premier League games under Rangnick, which is the worst win rate of any manager post Sir Alex Ferguson. They have won one of their last seven matches in all competitions and, perhaps most damning of all, were just beaten by Everton.
What is so alarming about Rangnick’s tenure, which will come to a definite end next month when Erik Ten Hag is set to take charge, is that absolutely nothing has changed. Rangnick has had zero influence on the team tactically – and has been inflexible in his strategy.
They have not taken to Rangnick at all, leaking to the press that his training sessions are outdated and his lines of communication poor. The only difference from the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era of individualism is that the United players liked the old boss, who could motivate them to turn up sporadically.
It is difficult to know whether the leaks accurately depicted Rangnick or whether player power at Old Trafford has reached a toxic point at which the dressing room lives in its own pampered bubble, unable to recognise their own role in United’s demise and unwilling to listen to anyone with new ideas.
That is the problem with disentangling the mess of issues at United: it is impossible to know where the rot starts and how to clean it out.
The result has been a total disconnect, leaving no tactical strategy and no relationships to speak of. Man Utd are nothing, as close to a void as a football club can be; at their lowest ebb in decades and judging by a tricky-looking fixture list set to finish outside the top six, priced at 2.915/8.
Has Rangnick simply failed to make an impression on the players, or does he not actually have any ideas? We will never know the answer to that question but certainly his status as interim manager didn’t helped, and the upshot is that Man Utd have wafted randomly across the pitch since his appointment in November.
He held onto the 4-2-2-2 for far too long and seemed to lose the dressing room before he switched to a 4-2-3-1. Yet no matter the formation his team have never pressed high like nor played sharp vertical football in the transitions – like a Rangnick side should. That was surely the original plan. There has been no evidence of it being enacted.
Instead, United are free-form, passing and moving as if they have never played with each other before.
Ten Hag will demand a tactical revolution
Any manager coming into the club this summer would demand change, but none more so than Ten Hag – an extremely taxing manager who aligns with modern tacticians like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp in his detail on the training ground. It will be a major culture shock for a dressing room that has been allowed to coast for far too long.
Stories from Ten Hag’s stints at other clubs paint a picture of training sessions that are very repetitive, involving constant stoppages to move players a few inches in one direction and constant drills to get set attacking moves etched into muscle memory. This idea of having perfected build-up rhythms pre-prepared in training are known as ‘automatisms’, and they put Ten Hag at the vanguard of modern football.
How the Man Utd players respond is anyone’s guess. In theory, they will be pleased to be playing very attractive possession football with high pressing and an extreme commitment to attack; few coaches, not even Guardiola or Klopp, pour as many bodies foward as Ten Hag’s Ajax.
Players may smell weakness
But the players may find the methods too boring, and with communication lines seemingly open to go above the manager’s head or to the press, it is certainly plausible they will pounce on Ten Hag’s inexperience at this level. The psychological battle is the area the new Man Utd manager will find it hardest, and one could argue that if Rangnick couldn’t get through to the players then Ten Hag stands little chance.
The big difference, of course, is that Ten Hag is a permanent appointment. He has also reportedly sought assurances over various aspects of his contract, suggesting he is going in with his eyes open and will not become a company man; an essential starting point, and one no doubt influenced by long chats with people who know all about the toxicity at Man Utd in recent years. Donny van der Beek and Edwin van der Sar will have told him the score.
The best way for Ten Hag to assert his authority would be to make big moves in the transfer market. Paul Pogba looks on his way out and Ten Hag would be delighted if he could get Cristiano Ronaldo to leave too, although United’s extremely high wage bill makes it very tough to move people on.
Instead, the focus will be on signing hungry young players who are willing to listen to Ten Hag’s instructions. Two midfielders are needed, and one of them should be Declan Rice. A new striker is essential, with Harry Kane the number one choice. And if the money is there, a winger and a right-back, too.
His shopping list will be long and daunting. As is the ‘to do’ list ahead of what must be the most difficult job in world football: the most famous club on the planet run into the ground through a decade of mismanagement. No matter who they appoint, the chances of failure seem higher than the chances of success.
Judging by Rangnick’s inability to get even a single tactical idea across, Ten Hag is going to have more bad days than good.