A new horseman of the Apocalypse
A writer's analysis of changes at Manchester United and the world of Premier League football
By Daniel Petersen
If you walked through the Frederiksberg district of Copenhagen during the recent local elections, one campaign poster might have caught your attention. A balding man wearing a politician’s smile and a simple slogan: “Balder Eller Ragnarok.” Balder or Armageddon.
Regrettably, for us, Balder was unsuccessful in his campaign, so perhaps it would be a good idea to start repenting your sins.
An even surer sign that the Apocalypse is upon us came in the form of Ralf Rangnick’s imminent appointment at Manchester United; the list of the Four Horsemen now reads, “War, Famine, Pestilence, Manchester United making good decisions.”
Appointing Rangnick is such a good decision that it’s frankly a little bit insulting. Previously, whenever Manchester United had the opportunity to make a good decision, they’d hold their hands up like a Wakandan king and say, “We don’t do that here.” It feels like your partner suddenly turning around and telling you they hate the soap opera you’ve spent the last eight years watching together religiously.
He will bring everything that Manchester United have been, to varying degrees, lacking for at least eight years now: a clearly defined style of play; tactical knowhow; in-depth expertise in football administration, scouting, and recruitment; and most importantly, these things are all focussed toward a kind of football that is both entertaining and effective in the modern game. No manager since Sir Alex Ferguson has combined all of these qualities quite like Rangnick will, and he will almost certainly light a firework under a few underperforming backsides over the next six months.
Rangnick’s record at Hoffenheim and the Red Bull group shows that he can build a club, or indeed several clubs, and United’s football decision-making has been so poor over the last few years that this is certainly a comparable job. Furthermore, he has won silverware at Schalke, Stuttgart, and Hannover as a manager as well, indicating that he is one of the few people in modern football capable of wearing both the sporting director’s and the manager’s hat when needed.
The fact that he has apparently been signed on for an additional two years as a consultant is equally encouraging. United have had a habit of spoiling a theoretically sensible decision by mucking it up later on. Sacking Louis Van Gaal, while undoubtedly harsh, and replacing him with Jose Mourinho was, at the time, probably a good idea: fresh from a Premier League title at Chelsea, the extent to which Mourinho’s bad habits had become ingrained in his management had not yet become clear and the style of football imposed by Van Gaal bordered on soporific at times, so the Portuguese was, in theory, a clear upgrade, not incomparable to Tottenham’s recent replacement of Nuno Espirito Santo with Antonio Conte.
Given that Mourinho won three trophies and still maintains the best win rate of any coach post-Ferguson, it is also difficult to argue that his tenure was the complete and utter failure some consider it to be.
However, the cracks started to appear quickly, and when they did, United dallied. Mourinho touted their second-place finish in the 2017-2018 season, a whopping 18 points behind the noisy neighbours, as one of his finest coaching achievements when in reality he had nothing
to do with it. United was the fifth-best team in the league that season by xG and was boosted by a mixture of good finishing and David De Gea producing arguably the best season the Premier League has ever seen from a goalkeeper, saving 8.5 goals above post-shot xG. For context, the only keeper in the Premier League to save more was Nick Pope with 10, while the next best, interestingly, was Brighton’s Matt Ryan (7.1). Only six other keepers, including Alisson and Jan Oblak, saved more in Europe’s top 5 leagues, but even those stats don’t quite tell the story of how good De Gea was that season, or how much United owed to his performances. The alarm bells were ringing, yet United ignored them.
Eventually, even De Gea stopped being able to hold back the sea and Mourinho was sacked
in December 2018 with United closer to the relegation spots than to the top of the league, his management has become extremely toxic. In light of this, United again made a reasonably sensible choice as their first-choice candidates were unavailable, they turned to Mr Nice-Guy: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer,
The benefits of Solskjaer’s appointment were obvious: he’d bring back a bit of fresh air, a bit of fun, and the Manchester United Way™ (whatever the hell that is). He even got some really very good results, as we all know, but again United spoiled it by giving him a permanent contract for a job that, for all his qualities, he simply wasn’t qualified for, not once but twice!
In fairness to Solskjaer, he did a superb job at what he should have been hired to do. He succeeded in restoring the pride and the fun to Old Trafford and he should have been let go with his head held high after he guided them to second and a Europa League final. Had he won that final, perhaps there would have been a case to keep him, but the result and especially the performance against Unai Emery’s Villarreal were indicative of a manager lacking the tactical chops required to overcome the likes of Klopp, Guardiola and Tuchel. This was thrown into even starker relief by performances this season when Solskjaer started telling United to press.
The thing about pressing is that bad pressing is worse than no pressing. Anyone who watched Liverpool’s 5-0 demolition job at Old Trafford will have had that lesson seared onto their retinas. In that game, Liverpool put up 10.5 Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), which measures how many opposition passes a team allows before snapping into a tackle or
interception to try and win the ball. For context, the highest-pressing teams usually put up around 9 PPDA, while on the other extreme of the spectrum, teams like Steve Bruce’s Newcastle put up around 30.
"Balder or Armageddon". Photo courtesy of Daniel Petersen.
Klopp, Tuchel, Guardiola, Hansi Flick, Julian Nagelsmann, and even Frank Lampard have instituted a hyper-effective press into their respective teams, but Solskjaer’s United produced a shameful 35 PPDA against Liverpool, which, given that they clearly did try to press, just goes to show just how impotent they were. It also shows that Solskjaer simply isn’t capable of coaching a team to play their rivals at their own game.
There are other problems with United’s squad that make a press much more difficult to implement, such as the presence of the 36-year-old white elephant called Cristiano Ronaldo up front, but it is clear that Solskjaer probably couldn’t have put up a press even if he had a
full squad of players predisposed to it. After all, Edinson Cavani is an excellent presser, while Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho certainly don’t lack endeavour, but the general structure of the team was so poor that these things didn’t matter. That lies at Solskjaer’s door, but the fact that it was allowed to get to this point does not.
This is especially relevant because Klopp, Tuchel and Nagelsmann, to name just a few, creditRangnick for developing pressing as a philosophy with more clarity than almost anyone else. United really are going to the source here, and that should help players whose ability to press
has so far been hidden by a lack of clear instruction. Ronaldo, for example, who has been somewhat harshly criticised for a lack of defensive work given his age, may start to do a bit more if he actually believes in the guy coaching him. Then again, he might not. Whatever
happens, though, this squad is going to be receiving a masterclass in Fuβball.
Even better, it seems inevitable that Rangnick will be succeeded by Mauricio Pochettino in the summer, and that will make United an extremely formidable proposition going forward. Furthermore, by locking Rangnick into a consultancy role, they are avoiding the chance to cling on too long, while still keeping his expertise to help guide their other, relatively green decision-makers. All of this points to a Manchester United that might actually be getting something of an act together.
Provided that the ground doesn’t open up and swallow Old Trafford whole, that is.