Since the departure of legendary coach Alex Ferguson in the summer of 2013, dissonance at Manchester United has become almost as commonplace as winning trophies once was. Ferguson, who retired with the club’s 20th championship, and his unique track record at United raised an expectation that his successors have all failed to date.
Everyone dealt with it in their own way: Louis van Gaal regularly attacked the media out of bitterness at the lack of success during his time in Manchester. The no less controversial José Mourinho, who took over for van Gaal at United in 2016, attacked the players in a similarly sharp tone. The recently released Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had tried to avoid all kinds of blame in order not to jeopardize his status as a crowd favorite. Instead, during his time as head coach, the fans rebelled, they urged the Glazer family to be dismissed – because of insufficient investment in new players.
Only the club management around the recently resigned permanent manager Ed Woodward and his internal successor Richard Arnold seemed to be mostly spared criticism – until the signing of Ralf Rangnick, who took over for Solskjaer in December 2021 and will remain interim coach until the end of the season.
Rangnick, 63, hardly ever misses an opportunity to clearly criticize the board in Manchester for its failures. Going into their final game in the Premier League, United – with just 58 points from 37 games so far – are in danger of having their worst season in at least 31 years. Back in 1990/91, in the early days under Ferguson, United finished sixth in the championship with 60 points.
The club is (still) in this rank – despite the last five away defeats in a row, with some pathetic performances and results (1: 4, 0: 1, 0: 4, 1: 3, 0: 4). The internal processing of the season debacle, sealed with the round of 16 in the Champions League and the clear slipping out of the premier class places in the league, now leads to the crucial question: Who is to blame for the ongoing decline?
The club bosses have already answered this unwelcome question for themselves by, as announced when Rangnick was signed, by signing a new coach for next season: Erik ten Hag, 52, from Ajax Amsterdam. The Dutchman, who previously made a name for himself at FC Bayern II, has signed a three-year contract with United with an option for a further year.
The bosses are constantly getting new coaches – Rangnick says: It’s because of the poorly composed squad
Of course, Rangnick assesses the situation differently. He sees the reason for the questionable state of the team not in the coaching position, but in the composition of the warped squad of players – and thus in the area of responsibility of the club management. “Every part of the team” urgently needs reinforcements, Rangnick recently complained, only “two or three strikers” are needed because there are “not enough flexible attackers”. Already in winter he had warned to become active on the transfer market. Despite his well-founded suggestions, however, the club’s answer was ‘no’ – there was ‘no player’ who would help United.
With his targeted criticism, Rangnick attacks the superiors at what is probably their most sensitive point: the sporting expertise. After the club had sunk around three quarters of a billion euros in fees for newcomers in five years – without adequate return on their titles – the pressure on the Woodward/Arnold duo increased steadily. Ultimately, they gave in to him and created two new jobs at the club. In order to lose as little influence as possible, they promoted youth director John Murtough to football boss, and ex-player Darren Fletcher became technical director, bridging the team and the boardroom.
United also signed a two-year consulting contract until 2024 with Rangnick, who made long-term involvement a condition of his interim coaching job. Apparently, the Board of Management only had the goal of refuting the public accusation of resistance to advice. Because instead of discussing the future strategic orientation with Rangnick and using his expertise, it increasingly looked as if the management circle around Chairman Joel Glazer was deliberately keeping the German out of future planning.
The question is: how much influence should a Rangnick agent have at United in the future? A mandate to completely transform the club, as it was once granted in Hoffenheim and Leipzig, could mean that Murtough and Fletcher could become redundant in the hierarchy. Rangnick, on the other hand, will probably not be fobbed off with a position with little content, despite a good salary. That’s why he recently received the unexpected offer to become national coach in Austria. With the promise to take over the national team of the ÖFB parallel to the planned advisory role in Manchester, he skilfully avoided the danger of becoming a mere lackey of the management at United.
Rangnick now competes with Austria in the Nations League
After the end of the season, Rangnick will have four demanding games in the Nations League with Austria before qualifying for the 2024 European Championships in Germany starts. When building his team in Austria, Rangnick has the privilege of deciding for himself who he nominates – in contrast to Manchester, where his ideas, even now as a coach, always have to harmonize with the interests of top player Cristiano Ronaldo in order to avoid spectacular disputes to risk.
Rangnick and his renowned assistant Lars Kornetka, who couldn’t come to United, can be trusted in Austria to develop the national team into a fright of favorites in the RB-Pressing style. This new role also emphasizes Rangnick’s independence from United – which could also affect his prospects in Manchester.
Because the club bosses behave in a distanced manner towards him, Rangnick recently stretched out his hand to ten Hag, who once worked with Kornetka at FC Bayern. Because of the job in Austria, ten Hag did not have to worry that a strong United agent Rangnick would want to become a coach there himself. Rangnick says he and ten Hag agreed to talk “about everything” together after the end of the season.
In this conversation, he is likely to disclose the shortcomings at United to his successor – and make a clear proposal as to which transfers would remedy the shortcomings. According to reports, it is then up to Erik ten Hag to what extent he would like to use Rangnick’s say in Manchester in the future.