Ralf Rangnick’s spell as interim manager was a failure.
His tenure in the Manchester United dugout finally came to an end on Sunday after yet another listless effort — this time, losing at Crystal Palace 1-0 in a stadium where they had never lost a Premier League match. A season that began with so much promise and genuine excitement, had turned into such a nightmare that most people just wanted it to end, consequences be damned. That United managed to back into a Europa League place thanks to West Ham losing summed things up pretty well.
There’s no way to spin just how badly this went. Rangnick’s record will read 12 wins, 8 losses and 9 draws to go with two cup exits. His team scored 37 goals in all competitions and gave up 37 — a nice bit of symmetry and consistency, given how United’s league goal differential this season ended up at 0. There were plenty of low-lights during his time in charge, including a 4-1 loss to Man City, a 4-0 surrender to Liverpool and a 4-0 defeat at Brighton. The sole highlight may have been this stirring last-minute victory at home against a team that finished one-spot below them in the league. One of the best ledes I read going into the Crystal Palace match was that United have been at sixes and sevens all year, so it’s appropriate that they’ll finish either sixth or seventh (they finished sixth, so woohoo!).
Worse, according to several post-mortems that have been published in The Athletic, the Manchester Evening News, ESPN, and other outlets, Rangnick seemed to be at a complete loss as to how to get anything close to the best out of this team. Whether it was because he was in over his head or was set up to fail, the bottom line is that Rangnick didn’t come close to fulfilling expectations or living up to his sizable reputation. The Godfather of Gegenpress had, at the very least, been expected to imprint his tactics, shape and setup onto a team in desperate need of an identity. Instead, according to The Athletic, he seemed to give up once he realized it wasn’t going to work with this team and set about trying to come up with a system on the fly that suited the players at his disposal.
None of it worked — the three-center half setup got ripped apart by Liverpool, the dual false-nines against City were woefully impotent, and the mind-boggling decision to start Victor Lindelof at right back (a position he’s barely played at United) against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League instead of Diogo Dalot or Aaron Wan-Bissaka was an unnecessary gamble that probably said more about his lack of faith in his incumbent right-backs than anything else. Ultimately, Rangnick’s United teams pretty much played the same way as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s squads — get the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo or Bruno Fernandes and hope they do something special.
And that was just the on-field product. Off the pitch, Rangnick seemed surprised by the level of toxicity amongst the squad and was undermined, repeatedly, by locker room leaks (for what it’s worth, The National reported that the team did an internal investigation and was confident it wouldn’t be a problem next season, so either the leakers are already set to leave the team or United brass are in denial and hope the problem will just go away — or both). According to The Athletic, Rangnick also seemed more interested in building a club structure rather than focusing on results — something that was probably more up his alley as a director and spoke to what Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal have also complained about.
Indeed, his greatest contribution may well have been serving as a whistleblower of sorts. While other managers have been willing to shine a light on some of the various shortcomings behind the scenes, none have done so with as much openness and volume as Rangnick (to the point where he was asked to keep some things in-house, according to The Athletic). United’s problems, especially when it came to infrastructure, player recruitment and scouting were already well known. What hadn’t been known, at least before Rangnick came in, was the extent player power had set in to the point where Edinson Cavani was granted an extended vacation before the season started, Cristiano Ronaldo was consulted when United considered hiring Antonio Conte to replace Solskjær, Jesse Lingard refused to play in matches once his contract started running down, and captain Harry Maguire continued playing despite his clear lack of fitness and confidence. One player’s agent even whined about how his client wasn’t getting enough face time on promotional materials. With such a me-first oriented squad, it’s perhaps a surprise that the players opted to cancel their annual awards banquet. Then again, maybe they just didn’t want to be around each other more than they had to.
It remains to be seen whether Rangnick’s revelations will give Erik ten Hag the leeway, power and time to do what needs to be done to bring the club back from the abyss, or if the club will treat Rangnick like Cassandra and simply ignore everything he’s divulged. Perhaps it will be the latter — after all, how else to explain Rangnick deciding to become manager of the Austrian national team? While he claimed, at the time, that he intends to balance the job with his promised consultancy role at United, and he must have gotten the okay from the United board to do so, it’s telling that both sides seem content with his attention being divided. If Rangnick were going to play such an important role in rebuilding this squad, then wouldn’t they want him to focus 100% of his time and energy towards doing so? Maybe United and Rangnick both want to move on from this disastrous experiment and the Austrian job is a convenient excuse to do so.
Either way, Rangnick was a failure as Manchester United manager. It wasn’t all his fault, though. The club turned out to be in far worse shape than anyone had realized and Rangnick was never going to succeed — not in the middle of the season, not as an “interim manager” with no real authority and not with this squad of entitled lightweights. “We all could and should’ve done better,” Rangnick said during his final pre-match press conference. Honest ’til the end.
UPDATE (05/29/2022): Turns out, the Austria job ended up being a very convenient excuse for Manchester United and Ralf Rangnick to part ways.