Ralph Rangnick describes it as “the epiphany of football”. It was February 1983, aged 25, working as a player and manager for Victoria Bucknang, a small town team in Germany’s sixth tier, when Valery Lobanovsky’s Dynamo Kiev appeared in a mid-season friendly.
Lobanovsky’s team was considered the strongest in the Soviet Union and it was not surprising that they crushed their amateur opponents to the side. But the way they did it made a lasting impression on Rangnick, a bewildering midfield figure.
He recalls in Raphael Honigstein’s book, “After a few minutes, when the ball went out for a throw, I had to stop and count the opponents”, Reboot.
“It was the first time I felt what it was like when I was systematically facing a team pressing the ball.
“You’ve played against big professional teams before – and of course we lost those matches as well – but at least it gave you some breathing space, a chance to ‘put a foot on the ball’, as we used to say.”
Lobanovsky’s team has not given Rangnick and his teammates such luxury. “I felt constant pressure for the entire 90 minutes,” he added. “It was the first time I felt: this is a very different kind of football.”
Sunday 28 November 4:00 PM
Departing 4:30 pm
Dynamo Kiev returned to the city for training camps each season under Lobanovsky, and Rangnick, who was studying for his coaching badges at the time, attended each session, pen and notebook in hand, to study how they played and how they did it.
Lobanovsky’s organized and relentless pressing tactics would form the basis of Rangnick’s own philosophy, a technique he would later apply to a string of clubs including Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, helping to revolutionize German football, and inspiring a generation of coaches including Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. , and, eventually, took him to the hot seat of Manchester United.
Back in the 1980s, his ideas were considered radical.
The Bundesliga teams at that time were a reflection of the country’s highly successful national team. Rangnick says in Reboot.
There was little room for maneuver and little desire for it either. But Rangnick felt German football was in danger of being left behind. Milan Arrigo Sacchi as well as Dynamo Kiev led by Lobanovsky have studied the potential of the zone marking system, along with high-intensity pressing.
Sacchi, AC Milan, winner of back-to-back European Cups in 1989 and 1990, demonstrated the power of team brilliance to rely on individuals. Rangnick was also inspired by the fact that Saki, like him, was not an outstanding former player.
A meeting with Zdenek Zeman, a Czech coach with a similar profile who has been applying similar tactics in Foggia, also in Italy, served as an added inspiration. Zeman assured Rangnick that his players need to be the best in the division in order to make the approach work. “I realized that a little pressure is not enough,” Rangnick said. “It’s a bit like being pregnant – nothing.”
Rangnick began applying these lessons when he was in charge of several lower league clubs, achieved remarkable success during a stint in Ulm 1846, and led him to the Bundesliga in 1999 with a hungry and energetic squad that included young Tuschel – at least before him. Forced to retire due to a 24-year-old knee injury.
All the while, Germany’s quarter-final exit to Croatia at the 1998 World Cup had prompted reflection on the country. Were Rangnick’s fears of German football, and its devotion to its outdated sweeping system, actually justified?
It certainly seems to be, but the resistance to change persisted, fueled by a high-profile television appearance from Rangnick in December 1998 in which he was asked to explain his tactics. The bespectacled coach was widely mocked as a “professor”.
Rangnick, though, keep going. He got the job as coach in Stuttgart on the back of his achievements with Ulm, but after leading them to eighth place in the Bundesliga in his first season, he was sacked with them in the relegation zone in his second season.
He returned to the Bundesliga with Hannover afterward, facing Mainz’s side under Klopp, who played under Wolfgang Frank, another early defender of control and pressure tactics, before moving to management, but a later spell in charge of Schalke proved less successful.
Rangnick’s time there further damaged his reputation in the eyes of his critics and pushed him to pursue a career in which he would have more control and more freedom to carry out his ideas.
It led him to Hoffenheim, a third-tier club with no notable history but wealthy and ambitious software owner Dietmar Hopp, who wanted to harness Rangnick’s methods in order to turn the club into the powerhouse of German football.
Rangnick embraced the challenge, calling Hoffenheim a “white paper”.
He was able to put his ideas into action on the pitch and also give him control over hiring, insisting that they only sign players 23 or younger, the idea being that in addition to retaining their resale value, they would be more receptive to new ideas and be Physically able to meet the demands of his counter-pressing tactics off the ball.
Hoffenheim was ridiculed by some as a “test tube club” but its rise to the top was swift under Rangnick. Successive promotions led them to the First Division two years after Rangnick’s appointment in 2006. They have taken over the Bundesliga.
“This is the kind of football we want to play one day,” Klopp said after Borussia Dortmund’s side were disbanded by Rangnick Hoffenheim in September 2008, losing 4-1. Germany’s coach at the time, Joachim Loew, described their 2-1 loss to Bayern Munich a few months later as “probably the fastest Bundesliga match ever”.
Hoffenheim went on to finish the season in seventh place, and by that point German football was adopting the Rangnick way of playing.
His time at Hoffenheim was followed by a second spell with Schalke 04, during which he won the German Cup, the first major tournament of his career, and led the club to the Champions League semi-finals, where he was defeated, perhaps fatally. by Manchester United.
But arguably his best work to date came later in R. B. Leipzig, where Rangnick had an influence similar to that of Hoffenheim. In his first two spells as head coach, in 2015/2016, he won promotion to the Bundesliga while also serving as Director of Football for Red Bull Clubs Network.
In the second, in 2018/19, he led them to third place, helping cement their presence in the Champions League.
By that time, in Bavaria, Pep Guardiola’s tenure in charge of Bayern Munich had accelerated the development of coordination counter pressure German football tactics.
Rangnick and his contemporaries, who were once seen as a “marginal movement of the modernists”, as Honigstein put it in RebootFinally, it became mainstream. “Rangnick may never have won the championship, but he did win by controversy,” Honigstein added.
Four decades after the ‘football epiphany’, the question now is how his methods will take hold at Manchester United.