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In November 2021, when Manchester United decided to sack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and bring in Ralf Rangnick as an interim manager the hope was they could repeat the success Chelsea had enjoyed over the previous eleven months.
In January last year the southwest London club had sacked their own beloved club legend, but inexperienced and struggling manager in Frank Lampard and replaced him with their own revered German manager in Thomas Tuchel.
Tuchel arrived with Chelsea sitting ninth in the table after securing only two wins in their previous eight games, before becoming the first manager in the club’s history to remain unbeaten in his first 13 games.
This helped Chelsea rise to fourth and secure Champions League football, and also reach the FA Cup final where they lost to Leicester City at Wembley.
However, Tuchel’s greatest achievement was to steer Chelsea past Atletico Madrid, Porto and Real Madrid in the Champions League knock-out stages, before lifting the trophy by beating Manchester City 1-0 in the final in Porto.
Tuchel hasn’t been able to repeat this success this season, but Chelsea will still finish in the top four and reached both the League Cup and the FA Cup finals.
At Chelsea’s final home game against Leicester City this week their fans unfurled a banner as a tribute to Tuchel with his image and the title “Deutscher Maestro.”
When United were looking for Solskjer’s replacement, they inevitably cast an envious glance at Tuchel’s immediate impact at Chelsea and hoped Rangnick could achieve something similar at Old Trafford.
To say that has not happened would be a major understatement, for under Rangnick’s reign United did not improve at all, and in fact became significantly worse.
Rangnick was welcomed as a coaching guru, the godfather of gegenpressing, and the inspiration for Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, and Julian Nagelsmann, who would bring new structure and motivation, and ultimately rescue United’s season.
None of this happened, and Rangnick will leave United as their worst manager for half a century since Frank O’Farrell’s brief reign at Old Trafford in the early 1970s.
Ahead of United’s final game of the season against Crystal Palace on Sunday, Rangnick has a miserable record of just 11 wins from 28 games.
This gives Rangnick a winning percentage of 39.29%, which is vastly inferior to all of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successors since 2013: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (54.17%), Jose Mourinho (58.33%), Louis van Gaal (52.43%) and David Moyes (52.94%).
The German has presided over a mess, in which United will finish either sixth or seventh in the Premier League, and were knocked out of the FA Cup by Championship side Middlesbrough and the Champions League by Atletico Madrid.
By late spring, when all United had to play for was a place in the top four and Champions League football next season they showed no interest, no fight and no commitment, quickly sliding down the table as Arsenal and Tottenham battled it out.
The task for any manager coming into a struggling side in the middle of the season is to motive players, to lift them and provide new ideas and new purpose, but Rangnick singularly failed to do that. He said himself this week, “My biggest disappointment [is] that we didn’t establish that team spirit.”
The players must share some of the responsibility, but Rangnick’s job was to make a connection with them, and they never looked remotely interested in playing for him.
When United started games badly or went a goal behind, Rangnick looked lost on the side of the pitch, completely unable to rouse his players.
The recent defeats to Everton, Liverpool and Brighton will have greatly embarrassed Rangnick’s professional pride, for the players gave up; it was so much worse than simply playing badly, because they weren’t even trying.
The reaction of the United fans was to chant “You’re not fit to the wear the shirt” at these players as they lost 4-0 to Brighton two weeks ago. It was the first time anyone could remember these loyal fans turning on the players like this.
Rangnick has long been lauded as a coaching guru, but was also unable to impose any discernible structure on his players. He was famous for pressing, but other than in his first game against Crystal Palace in December, his United side almost never pressed.
“We just realised that it was difficult,” Rangnick has said about pressing. “We had no pre-season, we couldn’t really physically develop and raise the level of the team. I am the one who is most disappointed about that and frustrated about that.”
It was clear that Rangnick, and his coaches Chris Armas and Ewan Sharp were unable to get this United squad to buy into their ideas and methods, as United continued to look disjointed after their arrival.
Despite the criticism of Solskjaer, some United players had actually preferred the sessions his coaches Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna staged for them.
Rangnick’s greatest strength was his honesty, which was always on display in his press conferences. There he admitted the scale of the job, and how far United had sunk.
As an interim he was freed from having to churn out niceties and cliches, and could speak the unvarnished truth, which the long-suffering fans came to appreciate.
He will have valuable advice to pass on to United’s new permanent manager Erik ten Hag when he starts this Monday. Despite his problems at Old Trafford, Rangnick has always known what makes a good player, and has seen this group close up in games and training. He can tell the Dutchman who he should now trust.
The United board should take some of the blame for Rangnick’s dreadful reign, for when he was appointed he hadn’t been a manager for most of the last decade. Since 2011, he has taken charge of just 88 games, in two separate spells at RB Leipzig.
United appointed a sporting director to rescue their season, when they needed a hardened and battle-ready manager.
Rangnick also pleaded with the United board that this squad needed reinforcements in January, and they chose to ignore him. He was at least proven right there.
United fans never turned on Rangnick personally; they could see he was a good man parachuted into a desperate situation, with a group of players who had given up.
He should not be blamed for everything; but the truth is Rangnick’s reign was a disaster. As he said himself on Friday, with typical honesty, “I should have done better.”