Manchester United appointed Ralf Ragnick as their interim manager earlier this month after the incumbent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked following a harrowing defeat to Watford away at Vicarage Road. The loss to Watford notwithstanding, United had also suffered similar shocking results to cross-city rivals Manchester City the week before as well as to Liverpool and Leicester City in the very recent past. Solskjaer’s job had come on the scanner ever since United started to deteriorate and the loss to Watford was the final nail on the coffin.
THE REASONS BEHIND CLUB LEGEND OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER’S DEPARTURE
Even though the players were equally responsible, if not more, for the debacle that they were going through, the club’s fans started baying for the Norwegian’s blood and other stakeholders started showing an extremely surprising indifference. The board at Old Trafford met quickly to resolve the situation and the only way out was to have Solskjaer make a dignified exit. Solskjaer, always the gentleman, even agreed to do a post-exit interview for the club’s television channel, in which he was almost brought to tears, should not have been made the scapegoat for the current situation, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the job had become too big for him. His philosophy just was not working anymore.
Solskjaer will always be remembered at Old Trafford with a lot of fondness. Leaving his playing days aside, what he achieved as a manager was significant as well. The supporters of the Red Devils will never forget that magical night in Paris when a second-string Manchester United side beat Paris Saint Germain in the UEFA Champions League or those repeated victories over their cross-city rivals Manchester City. The latter’s manager Pep Guardiola paid the ultimate tribute to Solskjaer when he admitted that he was beaten more often than he would have liked by the Norwegian in the Manchester derbies that the two undertook.
Under Solskjaer, United liked to sit deep and play only on the counter-attack if and when their opponents lost the ball. Their midfield was a veritable mess with the likes of Fred and Scott McTominay putting in average performances game after game. There was no particular footballing philosophy, so to speak, in place at Old Trafford and others in the Premier League quickly found out this weakness of theirs. United were not defensively strong either and would almost always concede goals from set pieces, especially corners.
Even though the Norwegian made a lot of significant signings in his time (Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho, Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo to name but a few), he could not convert them into tangible results. The closest that he got to winning a trophy was the UEFA Europa League in 2020/21 when United lost to Villarreal in the final in penalties. The board at United were prepared to wait for the tide to turn under Solskjaer but time was soon running out. Dreams for a title run were long gone and United were no longer even in contention for automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.
Solskjaer has left now, and United have appointed an interim manager until the end of the season. Ralf Ragnick, the former Schalke and Red Bull Leipzig mastermind, is their man. Until Ragnick got his work permit in the United Kingdom, former club midfielder and legend Michael Carrick led the team for three extremely challenging games against Villarreal, Chelsea and Arsenal, winning two and drawing one. Carrick emerged as the only manager in the history of the club to have left with an unbeaten record to his name. He has left the club now, partly in guilt of having shared the same space with Solskjaer, and partly for spending more time with his family.
WHAT CAN RALF RAGNICK BRING TO THE TABLE AT MANCHESTER UNITED?
Ragnick is an old-fashioned yet extremely modern football coach. One word that can sum up the wily German is that he is like a professor. The first proponent of Gegenpressing, the concept in which teams seek to win back possession as soon as they have lost it and not regroup and wait for their opponents to make mistakes of their own, Ragnick is also the teacher of famous German managers such as Thomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann. It is going to be quite interesting to see how his philosophy is adapted here at Manchester United.
Ragnick has already taken charge of one game so far, against Crystal Palace, which the Red Devils won thanks to a world-class goal scored by, of all people, holding midfielder Fred, by his ‘weaker’ right foot. Although the result was only 1–0 when the final whistle blew, United had dominated possession throughout the game and played extremely well in their opponents’ half. A quick look at the statistics of this match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Old Trafford will afford us a better understanding of the change that Ragnick is trying to bring about.
United took 16 shots in this match, which was exactly double the number of what Palace took. They made 436 accurate passes, of which a whopping 285 were in the opposition’s half. To put things in comparison, Palace only made 236 passes in total. The Red Devils also had more touches of the ball, more successful long balls as well as crosses. Defensively too, United attempted more duels, tackles and dribbles against the Eagles on Sunday. All in all, it is clear in a single game that the Ragnick era is well and truly underway at OId Trafford.
The German speaks in a lucid manner at his press conferences and underlines exactly what his team needs to do to improve or consolidate. One of the biggest worries for the supporters of the club when Ragnick arrived was that stalwart Cristiano Ronaldo was known to not be a very big fan of the counter-pressing technique. However, on Sunday, the Portuguese ran his socks off and kept pressing high whenever his team lost the ball. This just goes to show that even if such rumours of his dislike for this philosophy were true, Ronaldo is willing to mend his ways.
Apart from setting a strong philosophy in place, Ragnick can also set the entire system at Manchester United right. The academy of the club, which has been renowned across the world for supplying top-quality players, can benefit greatly from the German’s guidance and vision. At the moment, there are several Academy players in the first team, including the likes of Dean Henderson, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Elanga, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay to name but a few, and Ragnick can only be expected to increase the number. Solskjaer was extremely good at this aspect and it will be expected of his successor to follow suit.
WHAT DOES RAGNICK’S PAST INDICATE ABOUT MANCHESTER UNITED’S FUTURE?
Ragnick, formerly of Schalke 04 and Red Bull Leipzig, has an extremely impressive resume to his name. He is regarded around the world as the ‘godfather’ of modern German football. Credited solely for developing the Gegenpressing style of football, about which I have already elucidated above, Ragnick has also overseen the growth of several German football managers. When his former ward Thomas Tuchel heard that Ragnick was going to be appointed by Manchester United as an interim manager, this is what he had to say, “He was one of the very first to implement a back four in Germany and introduce the style of not man-marking and still being aggressive, and was one of the pioneers to introduce a 4–4–2 and high pressing. Still he is one of the leaders of this development in German football so tactically for sure he is an elite coach (sic).”
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Ragnick’s career is the way he took Red Bull Leipzig from the fourth tier of German professional football to the top tier (also known as the Bundesliga.) Although Manchester United have not fallen on so hard a time, they can expect Ragnick’s presence to come as a very big boost to both their players and supporters. What can clearly expect from the German is a dose of attacking football that was lacking under former managers David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. Although this saw a change under Solskjaer, there was no set philosophy in place for the Norwegian to take the club forward under its banner.
Under Ragnick, United can be expected to press further upfield and look to get the ball back from their opponents as soon as they lose it and not wait for them to make any mistakes. They can also be expected to put in more crosses into the box as opposed to under Solskjaer, when they only pushed deep and allowed their creative players to unlock defences. This means that fullbacks such as Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles are bound to find more favour over the likes of Aaron Wan Bissaka and Luke Shaw as the former duo is more sound attack-wise whereas the latter can thrive only in defensive duties.
Shaw might be an exception and be someone who can do it both ways, but it remains to be seen where exactly he stands under the canny German. United’s attacking capabilities have never been questioned, and why will it be so indeed as they boast of a highly impressive lineup consisting of Ronaldo, Cavani, Rashford, Fernandes, Sancho and Greenwood manning the final third, but it has to be seen what Ragnick does with the underperforming and out of favour French striker Anthony Martial, who also wears the club’s number nine jersey.
HOW WILL THINGS TURN OUT IF MAURICIO POCHETTINO LEAVES PSG AND COMES TO UNITED IN THE SUMMER?
After Solskjaer was sacked and Carrick took charge for a few games, there were a lot of rumours regarding how current Paris Saint Germain manager Mauricio Pochettino was ready to come to Old Trafford and take up the vacant position. It is no secret that United have long been admirers of the Argentine and had pursued him earlier as well, when he was with Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. This time around though, neither Pochettino nor his management did anything to quell the rumours circulating about him willing to trade the Parc des Princes Stadium for Old Trafford.
It even seemed, to an extent, that they were encouraging and giving fuel to such rumours. It seemed unbelievable at first, that someone with as few trophies to his name as Pochettino, would be willing to walk away from a sureshot Ligue 1 title to help the struggling United. In the end, it all turned out to be too good to be true and the Argentine tactician did not make the move back to England. And perhaps, this was for the good, both for United and his parent club.
Pochettino, whose shrewd tactics have nominated him in the upper tiers of top football managers, has zero league titles to his name. The only piece of silverware that he can lay claim to is the little-known Trophee des Champions won earlier this year for Paris Saint Germain by beating Marseille. Would Manchester United really want to bring in someone who is not exactly a serial winner at the helm, when geniuses such as Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho failed to turn things around? It will seem a little hard to digest for the supporters of Manchester United and pundits all across the world if that indeed turns out to be the case in the summer of 2022.
Another option for Manchester United if they do not want to continue with Ragnick is current Ajax boss Erik ten Haag. The Dutchman has led his side to six victories in six matches in their UEFA Champions League group stage recently, and it speaks volumes about him that this is only one of his many achievements. He is also believed to be a highly technical manager and someone who can sort Manchester United’s problem out without digging too much of dirt out of the ground.