It was when Ralf Rangnick came up against Manchester United in a Champions League semi-final for Schalke 10 years ago that he revealed his sensitivity about the tag he has carried around during a 38-year career in management.
On the eve of that first leg in Gelsenkirchen he was reminded of his nickname ‘The Professor’, which he had borne since the day he went on national TV in 1998 with a whiteboard to introduce the German nation to the notion of ‘pressing’ and the flat back four.
The reminder rankled with him. He said it was demeaning. But United could certainly use something more professorial after three years in which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not appear to have any strategic or tactical method at all.
Ralf Ragnick (left) was reminded of his nickname ‘The Professor’ when his side played Man Utd
Sacked boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not appear to have any strategic or tactical method at all
Rangnick, an Anglophile since a year studying at Sussex University as a 21-year-old, worked as an intern at Arsenal and considers Arsene Wenger a major influence.
But that strategising in a German television studio was all his own work. He was the trailblazer of the country’s pressing game and has translated it to clubs great and small, to hugely successful effect.
It was Rangnick, before Jurgen Klopp, who developed an obsession with his players’ reaction times in training. It was Rangnick who taught Klopp what effective pressing really looks like when his newly promoted Hoffenheim side defeated the current Liverpool manager’s Dortmund 4-1 in September 2008.
He worked as an intern at Arsenal and considers Arsene Wenger (pictured) a major influence
‘We need to get to where they are now,’ a devastated Klopp said in the aftermath of that hammering. ‘Tactical behaviour is not like riding a bike, unfortunately. You have to practise again and again.’
Rangnick seems to have been something of a mentor to Klopp, who rang him for advice before signing his first managerial contract at Mainz in 2001.
The two appeared together on TV the following year to deliver a searing analysis of why the German national team were failing. It proved visionary.
The relationship between these two progressive, prodigious Germans makes for a fascinating sub-plot when United travel to Anfield on March 19. But the big question about the months before then is how many of his own ideas and systems Rangnick will actually be able to bring.
The 63-year-old was so wedded to work-rate and pressing at Schalke that he banned the back-pass in training and stipulated a maximum of two touches on the ball.
Rangnick (left) seems to have been something of a mentor to Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp (right)
But United’s current personnel are simply not cut out for such an approach. Cristiano Ronaldo has no more place in that kind of set-up than he would in Klopp’s Liverpool team. Jadon Sancho doesn’t play that way, either, although at 21 he could perhaps be shaped.
There could certainly be a bumpy ride ahead with Ronaldo, although Rangnick’s former players do attest to his capacity to make them play better and create a happy workplace — qualities United have been lacking.
On the night of that Champions League clash with Sir Alex’s Ferguson’s United, Schalke’s legendary Spain striker Raul spoke of the positive atmosphere Rangnick had created in his short time there.
He has not stayed at clubs long. In those 38 years of management only two spells have lasted more than two years.
A five-year stint at Hoffenheim — where his players were encouraged to shoot against specific areas of a large electronic wall and there were elaborate methods to get his players passing in triangles — was certainly the outlier.
Eight months into the spell that took Schalke to the Champions League encounter with United, he stepped away, physically diminished by glandular fever and suffering what was described as ‘burn-out syndrome’.
Since then, he has become something of an interim specialist.
The 63-year-old has become something of an interim specialist since his time at Schalke
Rangnick won German promotions with Hoffenheim and Hannover as he climbed the ladder
He took over at RB Leipzig when Ralph Hasenhuttl wasn’t available for another season at the beginning of 2015-16, won promotion to the Bundesliga and then stepped away. He took on the role again three years later when the club couldn’t get Julian Nagelsmann from Hoffenheim. The team finished third in the Bundesliga and he stepped down.
But there is a sense he craves more than the caretaker position. He is thought to have spoken with Everton before Carlo Ancelotti was hired. Chelsea are believed to have been ready to give him four months at the helm when Frank Lampard was struggling, although Rangnick apparently felt the time was too short to have an influence.
His experience of British football to date has been bruising. During that year at Sussex University, part of a degree course in English and PE, he played for Southwick FC in the Sussex County Division One. In his second match, away to Chichester, he suffered three broken ribs and a punctured lung.
He craves more than just he caretaker role – he has been linked with Everton and Chelsea
The German will bring humanity to a squad which seems on its knees and all out of ideas
But while United’s last managerial professor, Louis van Gaal, instructed his players to ‘play with the brain, not the feet’ and expected them to understand what he was talking about, Rangnick brings humanity to a squad which seems on its knees and all out of ideas.
And his position as club consultant beyond this season could conceivably give United the dynamic director of football they are so painfully lacking.
‘My job — the job — is to improve players,’ he said in 2018. ‘Players follow you as a manager if they feel that you make them better. That’s the greatest, most sincere motivation there is.’