Ed Woodward always gets his man. Or at least, Ed Woodward always gets un hombre. Give Manchester United’s chief executive his due. People definitely keep turning up.
There is probably some kind of method in the decision to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjær with Ralf Rangnick: the leap from a managerial style based around vibes, DNA and warm feelings to Europe’s most unforgiving 63-year-old process trainer.
It might be tempting to wonder why there was such an urge to tease out Solskjær’s reign to its final stage of entropy if, one week later, it turns out what we actually need here is tactical boot camp with the king of pain. Or to luxuriate in the mouthwatering prospect of mature Cristiano Ronaldo being instructed in the art of violent German gegenpressing by a coach who looks as if he writes books about furniture design and drives a car powered by sunflower oil.
The news that Rangnick has agreed terms to become interim manager for the as-yet unidentified permanent manager, and after that to assume a technical, directorial role somewhere in between the current occupants of those roles may or may not have cleared things up completely at Manchester United.
But it is an undeniably exciting move, and one that holds an extra edge as United, without the interim man just yet, travel to play Chelsea on Sunday afternoon. Rangnick may be a tactical non sequitur. There may be a degree of slack to strip out if he is to instil his famous hard-running rhythms. But if the trip to Stamford Bridge offers any kind of insight it is just how quickly the culture and habits, the internal workings of a team can be sharpened.
Thomas Tuchel’s extraordinary gains of the past 10 months have reset the dial on this. Success has come in a rush for the man in the beanie hat and the skinny-fit tracksuit. This unrepeatable thing: this is the standard now, not to mention fresh fuel for English football’s fixation with the manager as seer and rainmaker, the great transformational genius.
A quarter of a century ago Arsène Wenger invented broccoli, yoga and not eating chocolate. José Mourinho gave us the power of personality. In the past five years Pep Guardiola and now Tuchel have provided a revolution by systems, theory and academics, to the extent it is now essential even for managers at the foot of the league to talk, en primer lugar, about their “philosophy”. All this in a football culture where academic methods were for so long mocked as a pigeon-chested affectation, the chalkboard jeered from the room. Welcome instead to the new intellectualism.
This is of course both an exaggeration (people have always liked to think) and a chimera. Success rests on so many other factors, not least money and talent. Competence in the executive tiers helps too. Perhaps on Sunday Woodward might take a stroll along to Marina Granovskaia’s office and compare notes on how Chelsea have managed to cut a path through nine first-team managers in the past decade, all the while hauling in and overtaking United as a trophy-winning force.
Certainly Chelsea’s board must have raised an eyebrow at the indulgence shown to Solskjær. It was this time last year that Frank Lampard’s own legend-manager-leader spell began to fail. A run of five defeats in nine was all it took. No generational humiliations, no weird public punditry theatre, just a discreet little flash of the blade.
There is nothing fraternal or supportive about Tuchel’s success in the months since. Rarely has any football manager made such a convincing case for the sacking of other football managers. But there is an odd note of circularity in the hiring of Rangnick. Just as Tuchel’s career was given impetus by the ideas and the intensity of the Rangnick “school” so United’s keenness to bring in Rangnick now – send for the mid-season super brain – is clearly influenced by Tuchel’s success.
It makes sense on other levels. There will always be a place for the big personality, the motivator, the manager as handsome celebrity duke. But with Tuchel and Rangnick, and Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp for that matter, the most notable quality is their restless intelligence, the obsession with detail, with football as a play of shapes and numbers and ideas.
This is how you win at this game now. The fitness and technical quality of elite players is so well-matched that this has become a game of details, a cerebral as much as a physical battle. With this in mind Solskjær’s departure has spared us what would have been a very obvious contrast.
On the one hand a coach who works within a matrix of received ideas, who sends out teams to either attack or defend, who talks about wearing the shirt and being on the front foot; and on the other Tuchel’s acuity, his tendency even in his pre- and post-match TV appearances to blurt out original thoughts, to riff on the spot, turning this thing around in his hand, seeing its edges.
That contrast is present in so many details before Sunday’s game. Consider, for a moment, the full-back, a position now a reliable indicator of how close to the state of the art a team find themselves.
Full-backs are messengers from the future these days, fluid, romping, unchained things. Full-backs offer width, depth, other gears. Or alternatively, they don’t. Luke Shaw had a fine spell last season. Aaron Wan-Bissaka tries very hard. But compare the straight lines of United’s full-backs with the evolving brilliance of Reece James, perhaps the best right-back in the world right now.
United’s full-backs have yet to score a goal this season. Chelsea’s have nine. Indeed before Juventus on Wednesday night the last time one of Chelsea’s central strikers had scored a goal was in the victory against Southampton at the start of October. There have been 25 in between, 13 scored by primarily defensive players
Above all this Chelsea team are a joined-up thing, a multi-headed entity where every player is sure of his role. Against Juventus Chelsea’s third goal was a perfect miniature, not just for its execution – a short film could be made about James’s drag back, the quick feet of Ruben Loftus-Cheek – but for the fact it was the work of three academy players.
Rangnick is a systems man too. He designed the system, or at least a founding version of hard-running, hard-pressing football, the game of sprints. It will be fascinating to see how he absorbs Ronaldo into his interim team. Or indeed, how Rangnick himself adapts, por primera vez, to being in charge of a vast, hungry monster of a club, a global brand machine, an inferno of voices and influences.
The job will be to tighten the details, to make the parts of this United team speak to one another, if such a thing is possible alongside three games a week. In Sundays opponent he has not just a protege, but an influence; and an act of mid-season alchemy that will both inform and provide a measure for whatever Rangnick can achieve from here.