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It’s Too Soon to Panic for Manchester United and Ralf Rangnick

United’s results have been unremarkable since Rangnick took over, but in his appointment, there is a plan—a plan that eschews nostalgia for cold, hard tactics

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this month, in the 54th minute of a Champions League draw against Young Boys, Manchester United fans serenaded Ole Gunnar Solskjaer—and not for the first time since he was sacked. This was strange for two reasons: First, it offered a loving kiss goodbye that no Premier League manager really gets to have—particularly one who was posted to the position for less than five years, and whose only contribution to the trophy cabinet in that time was a Europa League runners-up medal. Second, the future without Solskjaer looks brighter than it has on the Red side of Manchester in eight years, since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. For real this time.

It’s really quite the key change. Solskjaer was a cheery, almost elfish presence; new interim boss Ralf Rangnick is all business, slim and prone to wearing dark clothing and clear acetate frames. At full time of United’s thrilling 3-2 win over Arsenal, before he took the reins from Michael Carrick, the NBC Sports broadcast panned over to Rangnick in the owners’ box, letting a half-smile escape. Was it an expression of pleasure? Amusement? Whatever it was, he didn’t seem like a larger-than-life character that could eventually inspire song. Fantastic. He’s supposed to move into an advisory role in a few months, anyway.

Things, strictly speaking, are better than they were some weeks ago, when United lost four out of seven games, leading to Solskjaer’s dismissal. Rangnick has yet to lose in four games in all competitions, though their two wins weren’t particularly convincing. A renewed commitment to pressing managed to hassle Crystal Palace enough to produce an unremarkable 1-0 win for United, but it was once again a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty that saved United in a labored performance at Norwich City. If you squint, there are a few positives you can take away from an ugly draw at Newcastle on Monday: The team had been back in training only a full week after COVID disruptions in the schedule forced them to be inactive for 16 days. For now, we can say things like there was “no rhythm,” and add that a nervy draw against a side facing relegation is part of a “learning curve.” United have either been bad or disordered for several months. This is progress, to a degree. And the team seems primed to endure any growing pains to be good again, even if that means relinquishing its orientation toward the past.

It’s obvious why so many United fans are nostalgia merchants—from the Premier League’s inception in 1992 until Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, there were only eight league titles that his teams didn’t win. Many people go their whole lives without experiencing that sort of inevitability, but for United supporters, it’s primarily what they remember, and what they expect to return: the host of young, stringy talent that became superstars; the storybook endings behind mechanized late-game surges; the mastery of pressing tactics, man management, and space-time. Without any precise philosophy you could put core tenets to, Ferguson got players to buy in at scale, consistently building that fabled winning culture we hear so much about, brick by brick.

And then it sort of just vanished, overnight. For the past half-decade or so, Manchester United has been synonymous with wasted money and borrowed time. Under American ownership, the Red Devils have followed a pattern: Each new manager comes in with their own ideas about how they can return the club to its former glory, makes their share of exorbitant later-for-now roster moves, earns the “complete confidence” of the board, and finally leaves the team more misshapen than they found it. The one that OGS took over from José Mourinho was lumpen, using way too much Marouane Fellaini, and hiding the talents of an embittered World Cup winner; a sad, curdled outfit that was only ever so bold as to gamble one or two players on an attacking move.

The OGS Reds were fun and vibey by contrast, hewing to a fast, counterattacking style. But they were never imposing. They were often competent, sometimes great, occasionally sick, but not imposing. Comprehensive home defeats to both Liverpool and Manchester City this season made painfully clear, again, the limits of nostalgic pragmatism and the differences in on-field product between United and Jürgen Klopp’s perennial title challengers and England’s richest club. To make the leap back to prominence, the scary kind that deadens games before they start, United needed more than effort, attitude, and VHS tapes from 1998. There was an apparent need for someone with an aptitude for the finer tactical details of the game—maybe Mauricio Pochettino once he gives up on the PSG Monstars project, or Erik ten Hag when he’s free to leave Ajax at the end of the season.

Against all odds, in their search for an interim replacement (Carrick was the interim interim replacement), United chose coherence and continuity over self-obliteration. Yes, there is still much work to be done, but if the Red Devils hope to eventually implement a higher-octane, pass-heavy style like the big kids, hiring someone like Rangnick, the godfather of gegenpressing, is aggressively logical. Over his nearly 40-year managerial career he’s managed several teams in the German first and second divisions, most notably bringing RB Leipzig from figurative nonexistence to the heights of Champions League football. In the process, Rangnick revolutionized German soccer, influenced some of Europe’s most sought-after coaches (Klopp, Thomas Tuchel), and earned the mantle of “footballing professor” from his contemporaries. You could do worse for a stopgap.

Here’s another cassette tape from 1998: Rangnick outlining what would develop into the tao of “heavy metal football” during an incendiary appearance on German sports network show Aktuelle Sportstudio. The most dramatic among us might call it an inflection point in the modern game. Since Rangnick began his coaching career in the 1980s, Germany had embraced a wingback system, not too unlike the 3-4-3 formation Antonio Conte ran the Premier League table with after taking over Chelsea and rescuing Victor Moses from whatever broom closet he was stashed in back in 2016. It features a backbone of two man-marking defenders, a sweeping “libero,” and two defensive midfielders, with a pair of marauding wingbacks bombing up and down the flanks, servicing three foward players. It’s a rigid trap, set up to spring counterattacks on unsuspecting teams. Yawn.

Rangnick wanted a more vibrant, positionally fluid style of soccer that could pound down like a torrent. It focuses on closing half-spaces and sustaining pressure on the opposing team so as to win the ball back higher up the pitch, closer to goal. You see the platonic ideal of this basically anytime Liverpool fields a team with a healthy Bobby Firmino (who, along with Sadio Mané, can sometimes seem more interested in pressing than scoring goals). It’s crazed-looking and suffocating, and necessitates an unbelievable amount of running—so much running.

United may have looked sluggish at times against Newcastle, but it’s far too soon to say much of anything: a home fixture against Burnley on Thursday will make just five games with Rangnick in charge at Manchester United. So far, you can just make out the dim shadow of a manager bump, the kind of exaggerated effort that comes with a change in regime. It casts a pall over the future for a roster cobbled together from past managers’ ideas. Some players may find new life under Rangnick, in his 4-2-2-2 formation: Perhaps this will be the year that Fred figures it out, specifically in a pivot system that rewards his athleticism with interceptions, and now goals.

Others may not. Aaron Wan-Bissaka might find it difficult to get back into the first team over Diogo Dalot, who can both handle his defensive assignments and distribute the ball after; Alex Telles has turned in such consistent performances at left back in Luke Shaw’s absence that the England international faces a challenge in regaining his spot. Even the bigger names don’t seem fixed on the team sheet: It remains to be seen whether Ronaldo will sprint on defense when he’s not frustrated; Marcus Rashford, last year a glaring generational talent out on the left, has struggled to fit into a more centralized attacking role; Bruno Fernandes, who gave the ball away 27 times against Norwich, 26 against Newcastle, and has yet to score or assist in any games under Rangnick, looks like he’ll need more time to adapt.

Through the hiccups and jostling and awkwardness that happens when a new guy shows up to the training ground and declares that the lean, skilled soccer players are neither lean nor skilled enough, Rangnick is still yet to be beaten at the helm of United. Maybe most importantly, though, he’s brought a sense of calm and perspective back to Old Trafford. Ahead of the trip to Norwich’s Carrow Road, reporters asked whether the mercurial Paul Pogba “was in Dubai,” and whether he’d finally commit his future to the club. The answer, like so many Rangnick has given these past few weeks, was so balanced that it’s hardly quotable, and yet just as heartening: “If a player doesn’t want to play for Manchester United in the medium or long term, I don’t think it makes sense to convince them to change their mind.”

There’s things to do, you know?