By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER – When Ralf Rangnick took over as interim manager of Manchester United he was hailed as the ‘Godfather of German coaching’ and hoped that after taking a firm grip on the side he would be made an offer he couldn’t refuse — to guide the club in the coming years.
But far from becoming the Don of Old Trafford, the 63-year-old is now widely expected to be replaced by Dutchman Erik ten Hag and his reputation as a tactical revolutionary has been tarnished by his uninspiring spell in charge of the team.
On Tuesday, United fell to sixth place in the league standings after a 4-0 defeat by Liverpool. While debate rages about the reasons for the club’s decline, with fingers pointed at the club’s owners and directors, Rangnick cut a sorry figure at Anfield.
“It is embarrassing, it is disappointing, maybe even humiliating. We have to accept they (Liverpool) are six years ahead of us now,” he said.
“The team needs a rebuild… for me it’s clear there will be six, seven, eight, maybe 10 new players.”
Rangnick had a very different assessment of the players when he took over, appointed until the end of this season with an agreement for a further two years as a consultant.
“The squad is full of talent and has a great balance of youth and experience,” he said at his first news conference.
“All my efforts for the next six months will be on helping these players fulfil their potential, both individually and, most importantly, as a team.”
Why Rangnick has failed to achieve those goals is a matter of contention — some blame the players for their attitude, others the lack of a clear structure at the club.
“You look at the United team, there’s no heart, no soul, no leaders,” said former captain Roy Keane in his role as a TV pundit.
“There is disarray at the club from the top. They need a new manager, they need players in and players out. It’s so sad to see. It’s not the club I played for. It’s chalk and cheese,” he added.
But, whatever their limitations, this is largely the same group of players who finished second in the Premier League last season and reached the final of the Europa League.
Indeed, the last time United played at Liverpool, 15 months ago under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they were Premier League leaders and were criticised after a 0-0 draw. A week later they beat Liverpool 3-2 at Old Trafford in the FA Cup.
Solskjaer paid the price for a poor start to the season, sacked in November after five defeats in seven games.
The same group of players was then led by former player Michael Carrick for a three match spell in which they won in the Champions League away to eventual semi-finalists Villarreal, drew at Chelsea and beat Arsenal.
After Rangnick’s appointment Carrick left the club and was soon followed by coaches Kieran McKenna and Martyn Pert who left for League One (third tier) Ipswich Town.
Somewhat lost in the excitement around Rangnick’s appointment was the fact that in the previous ten years he had only been on the bench as a coach for two seasons with RB Leipzig with most of his time spent in a sporting director’s role.
It was expected that the German would bring in some experienced coaching talent to work with him but his appointment of American Chris Armas as his assistant raised eyebrows.
Armas knew Rangnick from his time in the Red Bull network, working at New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer and was available after he was sacked by Toronto FC, winning just two of his 15 games in charge.
Media reports have suggested that United’s players did not feel challenged by Armas’ training sessions and the disjointed and confused displays in recent months also raise questions about the impact of his other appointments in the areas of performance analysis and sports psychology.
Rangnick has been described as a major tactical influence on Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp and he clearly understands very well how his compatriot organises his team.
But on Tuesday, Rangnick, albeit hampered by injuries, opted to play a three man central defence, which allowed Liverpool ample space in front of United’s back line which they exploited fully to go in 2-0 up at the break.
But while quick to question his players’ performance, Rangnick was not in the mood for any self-criticism.
“I don’t think the first half had anything to do with our formation. The way we conceded the first goal was definitely not part of our gameplan,” he said.
It is by no means the only thing that hasn’t gone to plan at United this season.