Liverpool will be searching for their third sporting director in two years in the summer, and Manchester United might have presented them with the perfect candidate.
Unfortunately a good coach is coming to England, that’s how it is, to Manchester United.”
Jurgen Klopp was far from delighted when Ralf Rangnick, the ‘godfather of gegenpressing’ and a man he considered to be, ‘one of the best, if not the best German coach,’ was appointed interim manager at Old Trafford in November 2021, having been lured away from his role as manager of sports and development at Lokomotiv Moscow.
“Ralf is obviously a really experienced manager. He built most famously two clubs from nowhere to proper threats and forces in Germany with Hoffenheim and Leipzig,” the Liverpool manager said of his compatriot. “United will be organised on the pitch, we should realise that – that’s obviously not good news for other teams.”
Yet despite such admiration, United fans hardly saw the evidence for themselves under the German. The Red Devils were seventh when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked after a 4-1 defeat to Watford. Come the end of the season, under Rangnick’s watch, they had climbed up to sixth but their total of 58 points was their lowest in Premier League history.
A goal difference of zero, having scored and conceded 57 goals, was embarrassing as they finished 13 points off the top four and a whopping 35 points behind league champions Man City. Meanwhile, they won only 38% of their games under Rangnick, winning 11 and losing eight of his 29 matches in charge with such a record the worst win percentage of any Red Devils manager in the Premier League era and the club’s worst for 50 years.
As a result, no tears were shed when Rangnick left Old Trafford last May, moving on to become Austria national team manager, as both parties mutually decided against the German taking up his previously-planned two-year consultancy role alongside a new full-time manager. Given their success since under Erik ten Hag this year, there have been no regrets either.
Looking back, Rangnick’s reign is one of the more bemusing in Manchester United history and one that will not be looked back upon fondly. But while results on the pitch paint one picture of failure, his tenure can also be looked back upon as a wasted opportunity as clueless Red Devils bosses failed to make the most of his talents. But could their loss be Liverpool’s gain?
While Rangnick is a Bundesliga managerial great, in truth he has found his calling in a different role over the past decade. The German has proven himself to be a superb sporting director, which makes United’s usage of him all the more bizarre.
Taking over as director of football at Red Bull in 2012, he was promoted to head of sport and development in 2019 before resigning in 2020. Responsible for the likes of RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg, he helped oversee their expansion into European football, emphasising the recruitment of unproven players and developing youth systems with a worldwide scouting base, which would in turn generate sizeable profit via player transfers, and an attacking on-pitch philosophy across their clubs.
Leipzig rose up the German football ladder, winning promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016 and have since competed regularly in the Champions League while they won the DFB-Pokal last season. Meanwhile, Salzburg have become Austria’s leading side under Red Bull’s watch with the group’s transfer strategy heralded. Beyond them, New York Red Bulls won the Supporters Shield in 2013, 2015, 2018, while Red Bull Bragantino gained promotion to Serie A in 2020 with Rangick’s role rightly lauded across the board
Liverpool bosses are well-documented to be big admirers of the Red Bull project, and have signed a number of their former players in the past. Naby Keita and Ibrahima Konate were snapped up from RB Leipzig in £52.75m and £36m deals in July 2018 and July 2021 respectively, while Liverpool activated Takumi Minamino’s £7.25m release clause, which they only learned off due to their close ties with the group, to sign him from Red Bull Salzburg in January 2020.
Meanwhile, Sadio Mane was a former Red Bull player they had been monitoring long before signing, and even before Salzburg snapped him up off the back of the London 2012 Olympics. Had it not been for the Coronavirus pandemic, Timo Werner would have also signed from RB Leipzig also in June 2020, only for the financial ramifications of the global crisis to make it not feasible for Liverpool to pay off his £47.5m release clause in one go.
All five are Rangnick players, with him even recommending Konate to Klopp. Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino and Joel Matip played under the German also, at Hoffenheim and Schalke respectively, with him quick to point this out ahead of facing the Reds at Anfield last April.
“They are good, they are extremely good. It’s no coincidence that they’re as good as they are,” he said of last year’s quadruple-chasing Liverpool. “Jurgen has built that team over the last six-and-a-half years.
Six or seven of those players used to be my – or our – players. We signed them for our clubs when nobody knew them and again it’s no coincidence that this is probably the club with the highest number of players from our former clubs. Their approach, their style of football, the way they want to play is pretty similar.”
There was a sense of trepidation regarding Rangnick’s appointment at Manchester United last season. But while Klopp was wary of his compatriot’s arrival as a manager, the bigger concern was the long-term impact he could have had at Old Trafford.
The Red Devils had lacked an identity since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 and were notoriously awful in the transfer market. But having seen what the German achieved at Red Bull, Rangnick could have transformed United fortunes on and off the pitch with that two-year consultancy role lined up.
Instead, United treated him as nothing more than an interim manager, leading to his premature exit. There was no new identity shaped in Red Bull’s image, while Red Devils bosses repeatedly ignored his transfer advice, instead wanting him to do nothing more than hold the fort prior to Ten Hag becoming available rather than tapping into his knowledge of how to run a club.
Granted, they are on their own path now under the Dutchman, but their use of Rangnick screams further mismanagement and a six-month time-wasting exercise, with it a blessing at Old Trafford that their recovery is now actually firmly underway.
But while he will be seen as a United managerial flop, he could make a mockery of such a view if he moved to Anfield with Liverpool on the lookout for a third sporting director in two years after Michael Edwards’ exit last summer and Julian Ward’s looming departure at the end of the season.
The Reds are admittedly stuck in transition, with many of Klopp’s Rangnick-players ageing and set to depart. Meanwhile, Liverpool have lost their identity as their season goes from bad to worse. Could the German help put them back on the right path as they go in search of their next generation?
FSG admire his work with Red Bull while he already boasts a strong relationship with Klopp, with them sharing a style of football and desired attributes in players.
“I didn’t ring Jurgen about coming here, but we have known each other since 1997,” Rangnick said after taking over at United. “I was not his mentor – that was a coach called Wolfgang Frank – but we have always been in contact and had a good relationship with each other. We respect each other and that will continue.”
As a result, the German, if available, could prove to be a rather shrewd appointment. He could enjoy a smooth transition at Anfield working alongside Klopp, at least, with the pair already on the same page.
“As a leader you cannot be the last who comes in and the first who goes out; you don’t always have to be the first coming in or the last going out, but you have to be an example,” Klopp said in a Western Union video feature in 2019 when speaking about his trust in the backroom team around at Anfield.
We have enough confidence and that’s very important for a leader. If I would expect from myself that I know everything and I’m the best in everything, I couldn’t have confidence. But I don’t expect that. I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem.
“I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you. Then everybody can act.
,That’s what leadership is: have strong people around you with a better knowledge in different departments than yourself, don’t act like you know everything, be ready to admit, ‘I have no clue in the moment, give me a couple of minutes and then I will have a clue probably’. That’s how I understand it but it’s no real ‘philosophy’, it’s just my way of life.”
Rangnick would provide exactly that, which is what makes United’s limited usage of him all the more puzzling.
He often criticised the club’s recruitment strategy and the quality of his squad, diagnosing ‘open-heart surgery’ and calling for as many as 10 new players in what would be Ten Hag’s first summer. Yet he would see club bosses block his wishes to strengthen his own squad in January 2022.
“The answer at the time was no, there is no player on the market that can really help us,” Rangnick would later say of such a stance. “I don’t know why. The answer was no and that was it.
“There were a few… Diaz who is now at Liverpool, Alvarez who will be at Man City in the summer, Vlahovic who at the time was still with Fiorentina. So those are just three of them that come across my mind now.
“I don’t know [if we could have signed them]. But as I said, maybe we should have at least internally discussed it. It might be necessary and important. I spoke to the board and told them ‘shouldn’t we at least speak and analyse and find if we can at least get a player, on loan or a permanent deal?’.
“In the end the answer was no. The answer was no, maybe they didn’t want to do any winter [business]. It doesn’t matter, the answer was no.”
Meanwhile, he would name-drop Luis Diaz and Dusan Vlahovic again following his Old Trafford exit when naming six players he had encouraged United to sign, only for such advice to go ignored.
“There was no such [transfer] dossier, and it was never wanted by the club,” Rangnick told German outlet BILD, quoted by the Mirror. “But even without such a script, it was clear to everyone that there was a need in many area.
That’s why we were already discussing players like Josko Gvardiol and Christopher Nkunku from RB Leipzig. Those were names that were realistic. We also talked about Alvaro Morata, Luis Diaz, Dusan Vlahovic and, as I said, Haaland when they were still on the market. But the club decided at that time to rebuild the team under the new coach.”
The Manchester Evening News would later add the names of Konrad Laimer and Aurelien Tchouameni to such a list.
Gvardiol – who recently shone at the 2022 World Cup for Croatia and was subject of mammoth failed bids from Chelsea last summer – was even considered ‘must-buy’, while United were advised to at least scout the 21-year-old’s team-mate Nkunku, who will reportedly move to Stamford Bridge in the summer. Meanwhile, although United’s chances of signing Haaland were always remote, Rangnick urged them to at least try and negotiate a deal due to the Norwegian striker’s release clause that became active last summer, only for the Red Devils to refuse to deal with his agent, the late Mino Raiola.
Julian Alvarez was also suggested as a possible attacking option in January before Man City negotiated a deal with River Plate for £14m. He is now a World Cup winner. Meanwhile, while Tchouameni was discussed months prior to his move to Real Madrid, United did not engage with the midfielder’s agent as there was uncertainty over whether would-be manager Ten Hag would even want him.
On top of that, Rangnick reportedly asked football director John Murtough and chief executive officer Richard Arnold, via several emails and messages, to consider selling Cristiano Ronaldo nearly a year before his unsavoury Old Trafford exit, convinced the Portuguese wasn’t a part of the club’s long-term plans.
He was also said to have been ‘astonished’ by the club’s approach in last summer’s transfer market. Their failed bid for Marko Arnautovic left him ‘shaking his head in bafflement’, having initially been convinced that it was surely a ‘media invention,’ only for supporter backlash to prompt club bosses to end negotiations.
In hindsight, eyebrows might be raised at interest in Atletico Madrid’s former Chelsea flop Morata, but you can’t fault any of Rangnick’s other suggested targets, while his stance on Ronaldo has since been more than justified. It’s also telling how many were at least of interest to Liverpool or rival ‘Big Six’ clubs. You wonder how United would look if they had indeed listened to the German and had legitimately held interest in allowing him to re-shape the club.
As a result, while you can find fault in Rangnick’s United reign, he was arguably operating with one arm tied behind his back and unable to showcase his true strengths as a sporting director. Having played such a vital role in Red Bull’s growth, he is still highly-skilled in the field and would have plenty to offer.
Admittedly, there is nothing to suggest Rangnick, who is under contract with Austria until 2024, is even in the conversation to succeed Ward.
And while Monaco sporting director Paul Mitchell was linked with Liverpool last month, it’s understood that the process of identifying a new sporting director is yet to get underway, with Liverpool having no plans to recruit a replacement while Ward, who was recently linked with Ajax, continues to operate in the job itself.
Therefore, a successor seemingly won’t emerge until the summer, in stark contrast to the Reds’ previous process when Ward was groomed as Edwards’ successor prior to his own promotion. Consequently, it remains to be seen who could become Liverpool’s new sporting director, with speculated candidates beyond Mitchell few and far between.
It would admittedly be a surprise if Rangnick was appointed at Anfield, yet on paper appointing him as the Reds’ new sporting director could also make a lot of sense and would certainly be a better fit. At the very least, such a prospect, however hypothetical, could at least show United the error of their ways and allow the German to belatedly justify Klopp’s praise in the most satisfying of ways while helping get Liverpool back on track.