Ralf Rangnick’s arrival signals shift from messiah fix to modern vision of the game

As Manchester United go to Chelsea on Sunday, there may be regrets for roads not travelled. Six months after United appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjær as manager, Chelsea also turned to one of their own. But they were far more ruthless and, despite the affection in which Frank Lampard was held by fans, they sacked him in January. The improvement under Thomas Tuchel was immediate and, 10 months on, Chelsea are European champions and top of the Premier League.

Would United be in a similar position had they turned to Tuchel earlier in the year? Probably not. The job Tuchel has done has been remarkable, but he is building on solid foundations: Chelsea are well-run and have recruited sensibly, in part funded by an academy that is now producing first-team players.

Perhaps John Murtough, who was appointed United’s first director of football in March, will create a functioning structure at Old Trafford, but for now they are still adrift in the wilderness desperately hoping a messiah will emerge.

Skipping from David Moyes to Louis van Gaal to José Mourinho to Solskjær was alarming not only because it suggested a lack of direction and replicated the post-Busby chaos of half a century ago, but because it suggested an extremely old-fashioned view of what a manager should be. That’s why the appointment of Ralf Rangnick, first as interim manager and then as a background consultant, feels so significant, a shift to a more modern vision of the game.

Football became a popular cultural phenomenon in England at some point in the early 60s. Crowds had been vast before then but it was the coming of television that took it into a new sphere. Within a few days the great cricket writer Neville Cardus had identified the 1953 FA Cup final – in which a Stanley Matthews-inspired Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3 – as the moment when football replaced cricket as the national sport.

The impact of that game was perhaps even greater than he knew: it was the first football match in England to draw a significant live television audience, as many people had bought sets in advance of the coronation. The launch of Match of the Day in 1964 both confirmed and enhanced the popularity of football, with the World Cup win two years later inflating that even further.

In that boom a lot of our preconceptions about football were formed. It was an age of idiosyncratic and colourful individuals – Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Alf Ramsey, Don Revie, Tommy Docherty, Brian Clough – and that shaped the template of a manager.

There may be a surface realisation that the job is more complicated than that, but there remains a deep‑rooted sense that a new manager can still come in, deliver a few well-chosen words to the media, kick a few backsides, put an arm round a few shoulders, buy a couple of players and transform a club’s fortunes.

Messiahs are easy and exciting. The reality of modern clubs – scouting networks and long‑term planning and minute data analysis of remote transfer targets, brand management and youth development – is slow, complicated and frequently tedious. The idea of a charismatic leader inspiring a revolution is far more appealing and requires far less effort: we believe in him until the point at which we don’t, when he can be sacrificed as we move on to the next messiah.

For some clubs the religious tone is overt. “Cruyff built the cathedral,” Pep Guardiola said of Barcelona. “It is up to us to maintain it.” It’s because he was so obviously of the fabric of the club, an academy graduate who became an on-field general for Guardiola just as Guardiola had been for Johan Cruyff, that Xavi seemed such a natural fit for Barcelona.

His coaching experience may amount to a couple of years in Qatar but that is more than Guardiola had had when he was given the job in 2008, and his record is better than Frank Rijkaard’s (a disappointing semi-final exit with the Netherlands at a home Euros in 2000 and the first relegation in Sparta Rotterdam’s history) when he was appointed in 2003, and both of them worked out well.

The question there is the extent to which Xavi understands the philosophy. Has he assimilated it to the point at which he is able to tweak and develop it dependent on opponents and changes in the game? And is he able to transmit it to others? Or is he just parroting the doctrine, a cargo-cult coach who knows what Cruyff-ism looks like but has no real idea how it works? That is something that will only become apparent with time; it is certainly not something that can really be assessed in the Qatari league.

Few other clubs are quite so philosophy-driven as Barcelona – Ajax, certainly, and perhaps, in a more homespun way, Liverpool in the Boot Room era. But most clubs have only a vague sense of “a DNA”, which rarely stands up to scrutiny. And the idea that “knowing the club” is a meaningful reason to appoint anybody is a dangerous one.

After the death of Valeriy Lobanovskyi in 2002, Dynamo Kyiv went through six Lobanovskyi acolytes before eventually breaking a cycle of slow decline by appointing Yuri Semin. One of them, Josef Szabo, said that whenever he was faced with a tricky decision he would ask himself: “What would Valeriy Vasylyovych have done?” Second-guessing a dead man may be the basis for a religion, but it is no way to run a football club – particularly when Lobanovskyi’s genius was his capacity to adapt.

Much the same can be said of the similarly enduring Alex Ferguson. He did not operate by tactical dogma the way Cruyff did. What was the knowledge of the past into which Solskjær, the hero returning in the hour of need, was supposed to be tapping? The Fergie-era vibe was enough to dispel the toxicity of the late Mourinho period, but was of limited use beyond that.

As United consider their next permanent appointment, it’s perhaps worth them bearing in mind that Tuchel had no Chelsea DNA and that none of the three managers under whom they have won the league had any previous connection with the club. Innate “Manchesterunitedness” is not enough. Messiahs are all very well, but in modern football processes are rather more important.

Comments are closed.