Unloved at Man Utd, Rangnick restores reputation with Austria

BERLIN — It was left to Cristiano Ronaldo to deliver the final, devastating assessment of Ralf Rangnick’s brief spell as Manchester United manager.

Six months in which the team managed to win only 11 games had already done plenty of damage to Rangnick, but Ronaldo couldn’t resist one last dig.

“This guy is not even a coach,” the five-time Ballon d’Or winner said. “All the coaches that I had in my career, I call them boss because if they assume the job we have to call them in that way. But deep inside me, I never saw him as the boss.”

Unloved at United, not least by the players, Rangnick took the job as Austria national team coach in April 2022 before his temporary spell at Old Trafford had even come to an end. But in the two years since, he has taken Austria from the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup in Qatar to qualifying easily for Euro 2024 and standing one game away from reaching the round of 16. In the process, the 65-year-old has rebuilt his reputation and put a different slant on those dark days at United.

In an alternate universe, Rangnick wouldn’t be preparing to face Netherlands in Berlin on Tuesday, but rather helping United put the finishing touches to their summer transfer plans. On agreeing to become interim manager following the decision to sack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in November 2021, Rangnick also signed up for a two-year consultancy to run until June 2024. It was cancelled by “mutual agreement” in May 2022 after new first-team manager Erik ten Hag made clear his reluctance to work with the German.

After presiding over the second half of the 2021-22 campaign, Rangnick had expected a long face-to-face meeting with Ten Hag to pass on his knowledge and offer advice. Instead, Ten Hag would agree to only a short phone call.

United backed the Dutchman, in part because they had become frustrated with some of Rangnick’s public comments, including his insistence that the club required “an operation of the open heart” to get back on track and that the squad might need “six, eight, maybe 10, new players.”

United fans would probably argue that Rangnick has since been shown to be right, while his success as a coach with Austria has also gone some way to proving that his methods on the training ground work.

There was some bemusement within the United squad when Rangnick was unveiled as Solskjaer’s replacement, given that he had been working as head of sports and development at Lokomotiv Moscow and his only managerial roles in the prior 10 years had come during two short spells at RB Leipzig.

Things started well enough. Rangnick is a proponent of high-intensity, pressing football who has had a huge influence on the careers of Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann, and his style of football was evident during his first game against Crystal Palace, when his players won the ball back in the attacking third of the pitch 12 times — five more than in any game under Solskjaer.

Inside the first three minutes, Ronaldo charged towards a Palace defender and a panicked pass into midfield was collected after a thunderous challenge from Scott McTominay. It prompted a huge roar from the Old Trafford crowd — the fans’ way of saying, “This is more like it.” But that was as good as it got.

As performances began to unravel, Rangnick admitted he found it “difficult” to implement his blueprint and that he couldn’t “physically develop [the players] and raise the level of the team.”

The fitness of the squad was an issue, in particular because, after being parachuted into the job midseason, there was no time to undertake specific conditioning work.

It has been a different story with Austria. Given time and space to get his ideas across, Rangnick has turned the squad from functional and cautious under predecessor Franco Foda to one that wants to play front-foot, aggressive football regardless of the opposition. There have been statement wins over Germany in November (2-0) and Turkey in March (6-1).

And despite narrowly losing 1-0 to France in their opening game at Euro 2024, a comprehensive 3-1 win over Poland has guaranteed a top-three finish in Group D and set up a final-game showdown against the Dutch.

The performance against Poland has been held up as an example of “Rangnickball” — lots of runs into attacking areas accompanied by fast, precise passing to create a goal-scoring chance as quickly as possible. Austria’s players made 10 into the penalty area, compared with Poland’s two.

When a pass from Alexander Prass from the left was dummied by Marko Arnautovic for Christoph Baumgartner to sprint from deep to score Austria’s second goal, Baumgartner ran immediately to Rangnick on the touchline to celebrate the perfect execution of the plan.

It was much different at United when Rangnick said his biggest regret was that “we didn’t establish that team spirit,” although at the time that seemed like a more diplomatic way of saying the players never bought into his ideas.

It didn’t help that Rangnick struggled to find the right coaches to work with, while time on the training pitch was reduced by the hectic schedule and a COVID-19 outbreak in December 2021 that forced the closure of Carrington.

Steadily, he began to lose the dressing room after starting his reign with one defeat from his first 10 games, and his time in charge ended miserably with just three wins from his final 14 matches. With a win rate of just 38%, he remains statistically United’s worst manager since Frank O’Farrell more than 50 years ago.

Despite all the problems he faced, Rangnick’s own appraisal of his time at United was that, above all else, he “should have done better.”

Victory over Netherlands at Berlin’s Olympiastadion on Tuesday would, though, be more evidence that he shouldn’t be judged too harshly on those nightmare months in Manchester.

It could also set Austria on course for a meeting against Portugal in the quarterfinals, and a chance to make Ronaldo rethink his damning verdict.