“It’s entertaining, never boring, attacking, always geared towards having control, whether that’s when we have possession or when the opponent does. We’re very intense when it comes to pace and when in possession. We’re always looking to penetrate, and play quickly and creatively. I’m not much of a fan of sideways passing, and especially not of passing backwards. And, of course, when possession switches, we’ll hit the opposition on the counter. Fans who pay a lot to go to the stadium deserve to be entertained.”
Ralf Rangnick said those words in an interview with Ian Holyman for UEFA in December 2020 – and his approach to football will be music to the ears of Manchester United fans. The German coach may not have been a household name when he was appointed ahead of Matchday 6, but his influence on modern football is significant. Not least in Germany, where he led the shift away from a 3-5-2 formation and introduced a 4-4-2 pressing game inspired by Arrigo Sacchi and Valeriy Lobanovskyi – ideas that began to ferment in his first coaching role with Viktoria Backnang back in the 1980s.
Nine clubs later and the 63-year-old, who has inspired Champions League-winning coaches such as Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, has now embarked on the process of leaving his mark on Manchester United. Here we get an insight from the man himself on his footballing philosophy.
I come from a generation where the norm in Germany was the 3-5-2 system, with a libero – a position that Franz Beckenbauer ultimately created for himself – and two centre-backs. It was a very opponent-oriented system, where one tried to prevail in individual battles with German principles and willpower – and to win matches as well. As a young player I was the No6, who often had the task of spoiling the opponent’s afternoon. I can remember a lot of games where I did just that, despite not having a lot of possession myself. And you were praised a lot for that. But even then I had the feeling that this wasn’t the essence of football, or at least my football.
In the mid-1980s I met Helmut Gross, who went on to be my friend and mentor for a long time. He was one of the first amateur coaches who played with four players in defence and had a possession-oriented zonal defence system. We had hour-long nightly conversations, and analysed videos of Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, and Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv and I became convinced that this was the true style of play.
Arrigo only played in the 10th or 11th division. He was actually just a shoe seller. He succeeded in shaping an era for 10 to 15 years, with world-class players. AC Milan had the best of the best in European football at that time. To bring such a team to play together as a unit, to bring pressing onto the pitch like that, it was really fascinating. Back then offside was offside; there was no ‘not interfering with play’ offside. Franco Baresi was a centre-back, he was the man in charge, the boss of the defence, who always tried to spring the offside trap, at times making really tight decisions, but this offside trap was part of the attacking strategy – to attack early and pressure the opponents to make mistakes.
Read the full story
Sign up now to get access to this and every premium feature on Champions Journal. You will also get access to member-only competitions and offers. And you get all of that completely free!
Dynamo Kyiv often came to the Württemberg FA sports centre in Ruit [when Rangnick was coach of Viktoria Backnang]. One of their opponents had to cancel a game at short notice. The director of the centre called me and asked if we could play in their place, and we did so gladly. Back then they had Oleh Blokhin, and Lobanovskyi as the head coach. This game was a special experience: we had other friendlies against professional clubs but I’d never had this feeling as a coach before, like something different, like they were playing with one or two additional players. But that obviously wasn’t the case, they were just a team who pressed us across the whole pitch.
Until 2006 the actual profession of video analyst didn’t exist in German football, or in European football I think. At Hoffenheim we signed the young Lars Kornetka from a TV channel and trained him to be the first video analyst in Germany. We discovered that, regardless of where the game is played around the continent, the biggest chance to score a goal is within ten seconds of winning the ball back, against an opponent which in that moment has no structure. The second finding was that the biggest chance to regain the ball is within eight seconds of losing it. If you keep thinking about these two points, it was just logical for us to adapt our game style to that. If the biggest chance to regain the ball is within eight seconds, it’s about getting it back as fast as possible, the whole team together. So, this aggressive counter-pressing arose. The idea is to regain the ball where you lost it, as quick as possible.
On the other hand, it was clear that after winning the ball, you only have ten seconds to score, because after ten seconds the likelihood is dramatically reduced. At Hoffenheim we tried to implement these two elements in our training with so-called ‘provocation rules’. We had a ‘countdown clock’ developed by a watchmaker and we got on the nerves of the players until it became second nature to them.
We also found that it’s not just about where you win the ball: the further forward the better, of course. But we found that besides the location, it depends on the dynamics. The more we go into this ball recovery with high momentum, with speed, with intensity, the greater the goalscoring opportunity that results. Because you take this momentum, this dynamic, into your counterattack.
We were looking for players who were a) still young and b) very fast ideally, not only physically but also mentally. And, lastly, players with the right attitude, who don’t say, “Maybe we don’t need all this effort.” We were already conscious of them having their heart in the right place, and the right attitude, for this way of playing football. If you want to have success with that style, you need team players. [At Hoffenheim] we knew it would be difficult with players who focus on their own ego and priorities.
It’s important that you always stay inquisitive, stay excited about what’s going on and stay one step ahead. If I look into the future it’s clear that data is becoming ever more important. AI [Artificial Intelligence] is also very important, training the brain. I think that player development will increasingly start there. I see the game getting quicker; we’re talking hundredths of a second, tenths of a second.
What will always be an important factor for coaches is their contact with the players. Coaches need to reach out. If I speak from my own experience, the greatest motivating factor in developing players and teams is whether you make them better. When the players realise that the person in front of them is making them better, then they believe in them and follow them without conditions. Above all, they follow them if they don’t only make them better but do it in an empathetic manner. When they realise that “he’s interested in me as a person and not just as a moving part of a football team”. When all of this comes together then I think that is a complete football coach, now and also in the future.