Ralf Rangnick – Next Liverpool Manager?

Ralf Rangnick – Next Liverpool Manager?
January 3, 2011 Paul Tomkins

Written by Roy Henderson for The Tomkins Times, and also used on Roy’s own blog, Level 3.

The Victor Chandler odds checker for the new manager of Liverpool FC is a curious sight. The usual suspects are there, pride of place at the top of the li… hold on. Who’s Ralf Rangnick? And 6/1? That means there’s a remote possibility this fella could take the helm at our beloved club, doesn’t it?

Who hell he?

Well, let’s find out eh? A few of you no doubt know all this already, in which case please weigh in with your views, but a great many of us have a few gaps in our knowledge of his work.

Today in Twitterland, Tor-Kristian Karlsen (check his credentials here: http://tkkarlsen.tv2blogg.no) says “should Liverpool go for Ralf Rangnick it’d be one of the most inspired and interesting managerial appointments ever in the

Premier League in my opinion.”

Intriguing eh?

He continues: “Ralf Rangnick is a ‘German Wenger’… an empire builder and an advocate of attacking football.”

Sounds good I guess. But is he suitable for Liverpool?

Sprechen Die Lingo?

For me, it’s a bonus if the manager is a good communicator. The foundation for that has to be command of the English language, particularly in the position we’re in right now. So – another Juande Ramos Monsieur Commoli? *Coughs*
Well, no actually. We’re not talking chalking off the Linguaphone tapes either. Rangnick is fluent in English, having shown signs of the qualities that have driven his career in his decision to learn the language. When 22, when playing for VfB Stuttgart’s reserves, he left to immerse himself in Sport and Language studies at Sussex University.

“I knew that if I wanted to finish my studies and one day be able to read the 800 pages of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, I needed to have lived in England for a longer period of time”.

There are further hints at this character trait. If he’s passionate about something, he throws himself into it headlong, and seemingly without compromise.

Wet Behind The Ears or Pushing Up The Daisies?

Next up, age.

We need someone who can give us a good decade or more’s tilt at implementing whatever the club’s shared footballing blueprint will be. Before figuring out if that decade might be valuable, we need to figure out if there’s any slack in his ‘threescore years and ten’.

Well, born on 29th June 1958, Rangnick’s not your Spring Chook. That makes him, by my calculations, 52. That’s not ideal, given there are some candidates being discussed who are 17 years of age and such, but it’s not catastrophic by any means. There’s a good fifteen or more years’ slack in there if he looks after himself (and it appears he looks after himself).

So it would depend on the existence of drive and vision… but we’ll come back to that in a bit.

A Spicy Meatball?

LFC, as we know, now has a Director of Football Strategy in place. An ‘actively interested’ executive team buys into that strategy. So they effectively own it. Could Rangnick work in that environment?

Well, this is one point that’s up for grabs. Clearly he’s a spicy meatball, but not necessarily for the wrong reasons. And let’s face it – we do like a wrong ‘un at LFC – the last thing we want is your cookie cutter standard management material. We’ve had six stomach-turning months of it force fed to us like a Foie Gras goose.

So what’s the story with his attitude?

Well, only yesterday, he left Hoffenheim after a player was sold without his being notified. He commented: “It’s a unique case for a player to be sold without the coach being directly informed… That led to my decision.” For me, that seems pretty clear cut. If you’re a man of your word, and you have any kind of ‘code’ that you apply to your work, you need people to stick to the rules agreed. If they break the rules, some managers will lick their wounds and move and shake; others will hand in their letter of resignation. It seems Rangnick’s one of the latter. For me, that’s no bad thing. Shanks himself is said to have tendered his resignation any number of times during his time at Liverpool.

So what about the rest of his career? Well, perhaps Schalke is a better, more enlightening example. His time there was cut short in 2005 despite decent results due to a feud with their General Manager Rudi Assauer. It seems Assauer took an instant dislike to Rangnick, getting his name wrong at his unveiling, for example. Uli Hesse Lichteburger expands on this.

Actually, I can understand why Assauer felt irritated because I can’t say I’m too fond of Rangnick, as a person, myself.

He sometimes reminds me of Otto Rehagel, in that there’s a certain sophisticated gruffness about him and a touch of arrogance. But while Rehagel’s arrogance is grounded in the belief he’s seen more and learned more than you did, Rangnick’s arrogance is harder to stomach, particularly for an overachieving working-class man like Assauer, because he seems to believe he’s smarter than you.

Of course, he makes these comments in the process of nominating Rangnick for man of the year 2009.
Rangnick’s public persona wasn’t something new either. Before he’d even established himself as a top flight manager, he was already dropping itching powder into the establishment’s lederhosen.

…December 19 1998. On that infamous night, Ralf Rangnick, the fresh-faced manager of second division leaders SSV Ulm, appeared with a magnetic tactics board and explained the exotic wonders of his team’s flat back four and zonal marking. It was all hugely embarrassing for German football. Rangnick’s lecture mercilessly exposed the Bundesliga’s backwardness; at the time, both the national team and all top clubs except Gladbach were still wedded to variations of a sweeper system with three at the back.

And yet, what could have been a wake-up call was quickly brushed aside by an unholy alliance of old-school managers and powerful tabloids. The bespectacled and somewhat earnest Rangnick was dismissed as an esoteric “football professor” out of tune with what was obviously much more important than any new ideas: the old “German virtues” of will-power, leadership and Zweikampf [fighting spirit].

Uli Hesse Lichteburger takes the story on.

He was only 40 then and had never coached in the top flight so his performance rubbed a few veterans in the wrong way, particularly since Rangnick’s explanations of the pressing game or the flat-back four (then highly unusual in Germany) were taken to imply that most of his colleagues were teaching outdated methods.

Rangnick seems to feel he painted himself into a corner he can’t get out of with that performance, the more so since it became known in the wake of this TV show that his players called him “the Professor”. And indeed, many people appear to feel the same way about Rangnick that I do – just the other day, Bayern’s Uli Hoeness called him a “smart aleck”.

But I don’t think that has anything to do with 1998. It’s just the way that Rangnick is, and I can’t say I really mind. Despite daily evidence to the contrary, I don’t think sport should be a popularity contest. As Dizzy Dean said, it ain’t bragging if you can do it, and Rangnick has certainly done it, has proven that if you leave him alone he’ll build a team that plays exceptionally well and has success.

Perhaps it’s just that Rangnick is a trained school teacher.

So what can we glean from that? A hint of the iconoclast, a man who won’t accept convention for convention’s sake, and a man who’s confident enough to hold his ground when confronted with the footballing establishment.
Surely that’s Liverpool’s life blood, no?

What About The Football?

Rangnick’s Hoffenheim team were built on familiar foundations. The players didn’t play their own game. They didn’t play to try and look good. They helped each other out, and they ran for each other. They didn’t think they were superstars. And last but not least, they had strong team spirit.

But what about their style? Well, that’s when things really get interesting. Hoffenheim played genuine one-touch pass-and-move football. Hoenigstein described their football as “beautiful and free-flowing”, “Autobahn-Fussball without a speed limit”, and “a joy to behold.”

So how does that happen? Good old hard work and commitment to a footballing ‘way’, that’s how.

“[Rangnick]… has instilled his players with a world of confidence and a never-say-die attitude, which perfectly complements his attacking philosophy.
Under Rangnick, Hoffenheim plays a relentless pressing game, with emphasis put on quickly moving the ball upfield with a series of quick and short passes to keep their opponents on the back foot at all times.”
So where are the roots of his commitment to this brand of pressing game?

[He] had never played at the highest level, only as an amateur for Stuttgart, Victoria Backnang and tiny outfit Southwick FC, while studying in England. Largely self-taught, his epiphany came in a Backnang friendly against Valeriy Lobanovsky’s Dynamo Kyiv in 1984. “I was convinced they had one more player on the pitch,” he later said about the opponents’ pressing game. “This was a whole new way of football.” A few years on, he had Italian friends sending over VHS cassettes of Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan and once spent an entire family holiday looking at the training regime of legendary Czech coach Zdenek Zeman, then manager at US Foggia. Rangnick adopted the revolutionary methods of these mavericks and took little Ulm all the way to the Bundesliga in 1999. But the country wasn’t yet ready for his academic approach. Mixed fortunes at Stuttgart, Hannover and Schalke saw him struggling to lose the “professor” tag.

Gabriele Marcotti takes up the reins, (written shortly after a narrow loss to Bayern Munich away).

‘They were easily the toughest opponents we’ve played all year at the Allianz Arena,’ Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the Bayern chairman, said. ‘Nobody else has come into our house and pushed us around like that.’
The ‘pushing around’ bit is an apt analogy, because it speaks to the way Hoffenheim play. Their 4-3-3 is not a cloaked 4-5-1; their wingers and Demba Ba and Chinedu Ogbuke (who made the journey with John Obi Mikel from Nigeria to Norway, was his flatmate for two years and nearly joined him at Chelsea) ñ stay up the pitch and furiously press and harass the opposition. Their midfield trio move like clockwork and the back four push right up, applying the off-side trap with maniacal precision.

‘My football ideal is Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan,Ralf Rangnick, their manager, said. ‘Be aggressive in the press, never pass the ball backwards, be quick and direct in possession, move in unison.’ Indeed, Sacchi gave football its last real tactical innovation some 20 years ago.

…Of course, many have tried to emulate what Sacchi achieved in his first four years at the San Siro, without succeeding. And that’s why Rangnick has provided his own tweaks, starting with the formation (a 4-3-3, rather than Sacchi’s 4-4-2). But, like all great tactical systems, the result is that the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

…Nobody embodies this more than Hoffenheim’s centre forward, Vedad Ibisevic… Tall (6ft 3in), strong and mobile, he is the offensive terminus for everything the side do and, beyond his scoring record, his runs and movement have become an integral part of Rangnick’s master scheme.

If they put the formations to one side for a moment, most Liverpool fans of a certain age would consider that style of football to be their club’s own hallmark. Here was another side who’d freshly discovered that formula. Interesting, no?

Set In His Ways?

With FSG at the helm, it’s maybe fair to suggest a new manager not be too set in his ways. These guys have a track record of interesting and unconventional analysis, and they work well with people who share that constant hunger to challenge conventional practice to try and find an edge. It goes a long way to explain why Hodgson is regarded the way he is within the club. Not only do they want winners – they prefer winners who like winning in innovative ways.
Gabriele Marcotti gave us an insight into Rangnick’s mindset on this front.

Crucially, [Hoffenheim] have provided an alternative blueprint for success. One based on infrastructure, coaching and tactics. That alone makes them special, whatever may happen.
…20 years ago, Rangnick was working in German amateur football. He would tape every Milan game, edit and catalogue every sequence and build a database of how the side moved on the pitch. And this was years before ProZone. To do this, you have to be something of a football-obsessed workaholic, which Rangnick undoubtedly is.”

Echoes of his decision to move wholesale to England in his early 20s there. This is an intense man, who, when he’s inspired by an idea, throws himself into it without compromise.
Hoenigstein again.

…the real reasons for Hoffenheim’s fantastic ascent to the top are to be found in the minds of the management…

“Hoffenheim are distinguished by a strong belief in the success of a convincing plan and the smart employment of resources,” gushed Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. While Rangnick is increasingly wary of giving too many of his training secrets away, general manager Jan Schindelmeiser was happy to explain the basic tenet of their thinking. “Our player selection process is subordinate to our style of football,” he said. “We don’t buy 30-year-old-players who can’t handle our pace.”

…”Rangnick doesn’t need rugged veterans who bring down the tempo to their level”

…”The Bundesliga has never seen such cool, collected novices before”

You can imagine Messrs Henry and Werner smiling at the suggestion of that kind of approach.

An Eye For A Player?

Liverpool’s behind the 8 ball in the transfer market, at least in the short term, so we need a man who can squeeze every last penny of value from the club’s transfer budget. So how does he fare on this front? Well, let’s see.
At the stage where they topped the Bundesliga, the Hoffenheim team’s average age was 23. Was this down to Rangnick’s preference in any way? Well, I’d argue this is where he really stakes a claim for suitability. In his work at Hoffenheim, he insisted they work pretty much the exact how FSG and Commoli want to work at Liverpool. Over to Herr Rangnick himself.

‘Mr Hopp had been trying to win promotion [from the third division] for three or four years with no success,’ says Rangnick… ‘At that time he was still putting money in, but not as much as now. What he had been trying to do was the same as many clubs – bring in experienced, expensive players. He was looking for a big solution. I told him that we wanted to look for younger players from the start.

‘We realised after two or three months that we needed Francisco Copado [a 34-year-old midfielder] and other older players. After the promotion to league two we said, “Now we completely concentrate on the younger ones.” We only looked for players aged between 17 and 23. The oldest we’ve signed in the last three years was Per Nilsson [a Swedish defender]. He was 24. All the others we signed were 19, 20, 21.’

…’With those youngsters you have to let them run. If you play defensively with a young team it is a contradiction. Young players have many advantages. They learn faster, listen, can cope with the intensity of training. Young players also know that they need team spirit, and need trust and confidence from us.

‘The average age of the squad is 22-and-a-half. We have only four defeats, which is absolutely unbelievable. The progress in recent months is outstanding.’

Not only was this more ‘market-efficient’ – it also suited his intense approach to the game. He needed young players for specific technical reasons.
So what kind of players did he buy? Does he go for established ‘names’?

Hoenigstein again.

…Half of “Germany’s new football heroes” (Bild), men such as future German international Marvin Compper, were bargain basement cast-offs from other Bundesliga clubs. The others ≠≠- Vedad Ibisevic, Chinedu Obasi, Ba, Eduardo – are moderately expensive unknowns that any half-decent team could have easily bought themselves. But they were looking elsewhere, or worse, only at the roster of their favourite player agencies.

The case of the attacking focal point mentioned above – Vedad Ibisevic – is probably a good example. It’s fair to say he found value where others were unable to spot it.

Ibisevic, top of the scorers list with nine goals, has become the first household name among Rangnick’s gang of former misfits, nobodies and unknown unknowns. His is a veritable rags to riches story and testament to Hoffenheim’s fantastic scouting skills. “A fairytale,” he calls it. His family became refugees in the Balkan war and later emigrated to the US via Switzerland. Ibisevic played college soccer for Roosevelt High School in St Louis and was called up to the Bosnian U21s where he met Vahid Halilhodzic, then manager of PSG. Halilhodzic took him to the French capital but Ibisevic was soon loaned to Ligue 2 side Dijon where he, tata!, started cutting the mustard. Alemannia Aachen took a chance on him and were soon relegated. The step back proved a blessing. Ibisevic caught Rangnick’s eye in the second division and was bought in 2007. Hoffenheim, backed by Dietmar Hopp’s millions, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Not conclusive by any means – there’s no doubt evidence to the contrary from his earlier career. But his reputation is for sage selection of players ‘under the radar’. That’s no bad thing in Liverpool’s current context.

Don’t Panic!

He’s been around a while – how does he cope when things don’t go quite so well?

Hoffenheim’s meteoric rise through the German league pyramid culminated with their topping the league at the winter break – an achievement given the tag “Autumn Champions”. But by the end of the season, as Rafael Hoenigstein says, they were “officially the worst autumn champions in the history of the Bundesliga”.

Why did the wheels come off in their title challenging season? Hoenigstein summed it up as follows: “inflated egos, infighting and injuries”. You might also add “indiscipline”. So why didn’t Rangnick manage these things more effectively?
Well, managers need to learn. It’s maybe a by-product of the policy the club followed – to hire kids. To neglect the aspect that keeps them honest and professional, and that keeps their feet on the ground, is a potential time bomb. But while other managers may consciously look after that side of things, other more institutionalised clubs with a focus on youth (Ajax being the most obvious example historically) have established cultures that ensure nobody gets above their station. At Hoffenheim, Rangnick had to work with his colleagues to effectively build the club from scratch. That’s something different. And it’s interesting to note that he always worked on their psychological state – he was constantly working to instil confidence in his charges. In the process, maybe he created a few problems for himself.

Hoenigstein casts light on how Rangnick responded when the wheels started to come off.

“Rangnick had adopted drastic measures. The team holed up in a training camp in the Black Forest but the fabled spirit… that was said to have been instrumental in their promotion campaign… failed to materialise.
…”We won’t pack it in now but keep working hard in training until every single player improves… it’s all a matter of the head.” [The club captain], however, thinks that one or two egos might have gotten too big. “I feel that everybody is playing their own game, trying to look good,” said the 28-year-old. “We’ve stopped helping each other out and running for each other. A few people think they are superstars. The team spirit is broken.”

Rangnick, too, has complained that his team have been infected by this kind of Christiano Ronaldoism over the winter break. “For months, they would read how brilliant they are,” he said in February. “They were treated like pop stars and photographed like models. Sudenly, the media were interested in the girlfiend’s handbags. One or two players found it difficult to concentrate on the relevant things.

So was Rangnick naive? Clearly he knew what was needed, but he felt powerless to control it. Is this something that’s controllable? That’s a massive question that’s beyond the scope of this piece – but it’s worth bearing in mind when you think of how Rangnick’s work would translate elsewhere.

You wonder if he learned from the experience. The article continues with a wonderful point. “As an overtly technical, attacking outfit built in the image of Arsenal, they need confidence and routine to hit their stride.” As such, whoever manages that kind of outfit needs to actively manage the team’s mentality, confidence, and overall state of mind – both individually and collectively. Sure – there are some things you can’t control – but you control the controllables.
Injuries? Well, if you play an intense brand of football you need as good a medical department as you can muster (apparently LFC enjoys this), and you need young, athletic, motivated players in sufficient numbers to rotate the squad (no matter what the boys on Soccer Saturday or Sunday Supplement might have you believe).

But it’s worth noting that the side lost Ibisevic – the focal point – at the very point in the season when things started going wrong. (Or should I say, ‘less right’ – they were, after all, a newly promoted team – that’s easy to forget.)

Would Rangnick Work Within The New LFC Structure?

This is a key question. Liverpool’s new structure isn’t to every manager’s taste, and Rangnick hasn’t really worked in that kind of ‘subordinate’ manager’s role for a few years. When asked what underpinned Hoffenheim’s progress, he replies as follows.

Rangnick… names four key areas: the primacy of young players, a long-term vision, an emphasis on man-management and his role as the sole leader of the club.

‘We wanted to build success, win promotion in the next one to four years, and have a team with the quality to play in the first division. Also, senior players like Copado and Selim Teber [who captained the team into Bundesliga 2] may have been overhauled by the young players, but they are still important emotionally. Leading the team emotionally is key, rather than just giving commandments. I’ve been with Arsenal twice – two-and-a-half and four years ago – in their pre-season training camp in Austria. There you could see ArsËne. Of course he’s the boss. But there are staff around who give his players the chance to develop.

‘Finally, it’s a different system here than in England where, in the big clubs at least, the manager is strong. In Germany you have the head coach, but also at least two other strong figures. It is only us and maybe Wolfsburg, with Felix Magath, who have the manager system.’

So – it’s not an obvious fit. Would he be happy working in a more ‘collegiate’ way? Commoli seems to want to be complementary to the manager in Hodgson’s case, and is punctilious on that front – always taking care not to undermine his authority. Would Rangnick be happy to work in that environment?

Worth a punt?

Honestly? At 6/1 I’m going to have a few quid on him being the next long-term Liverpool manager. That’s not to say he’s my first choice by any means – I’m a big fan of Coyle, for example, and I’m intrigued by other options being mooted such as Vilas Boas, Klopp and Laudrup. I just think that, set against the backdrop of FSG and Commoli’s approach, they might feel he’s a good fit.