Michael Walker: Rangnick the theorist here to put philosophy into practice

Former Schalke boss has gone from ridicule to respect as he brings his style to United


In February 2004 the chairman of French club Le Mans, Henri Legarda, met a Swiss coach and liked what he heard so much, he made him manager. His name was Daniel Jeandupeux, a 55 year-old former Switzerland international and national team coach.

Le Mans were in the relegation zone and about to face Marseilles, Lyon and Paris St-Germain. “I met Jeandupeux a few days ago and felt he shared the spirit and philosophy of our club,” Legarda explained - “seriousness, tactics, strategy.”

Le Mans drew with Marseilles, lost in Lyon and then lost 1-0 at home to PSG. They did win four games in April but Jeandupeux had been appointed too late and Le Mans were relegated by a point. Jeandupeux moved upstairs.

He had, however, already made his mark and not just in Le Mans. Jeandupeux’s thoughts on style and formation - “seriousness, tactics, strategy” - had been laid out in an essay he wrote ten years earlier. It was called ‘The Philosophy of the Back Four’ and it was read beyond Switzerland.

In Germany one who saw it was a player-turned-manager called Wolfgang Frank. When Jeandupeux’s essay was published, Frank was in charge of relegation-threatened Mainz 05 in Bundesliga 2. Frank, a thinker, had been attracted to and won over by Arrigo Sacchi’s work at AC Milan. Although he hardly had players of the calibre of Ruud Gullit or Marco van Basten in Mainz, Frank read Jeandupeux and saw how his idea of numerical pressing chimed with Sacchi and how structure and strategy could help offset a comparative lack of individual talent.

Mainz avoided relegation and along the way raised eyebrows with their particular style. “He made our results independent of our talent, to an extent,” said one of Frank’s players, Jurgen Klopp.

Frank’s idea was for super-fit, organised players to hunt the ball down, then expand in possession, “like opening your fist”.

A further division down, in the regional Bundesliga, at SSV Ulm, another coach was employing similar methodology. The seriousness, tactics and strategy of Ralf Rangnick were proving effective; they were also confronting established notions of what German football was and how it should be played.

Rangnick suddenly had his hands full. After all, German football was not unsuccessful and when he appeared on television to explain his philosophy, there was a backlash from the mainstream, including from legends such as Franz Beckenbauer.

“I was considered a theorist,” Rangnick said. “That was meant as an insult. A theorist, so went the view at the time, was the opposite of a practitioner.”

Rangnick had not nailed his thesis to a door, but it was as if he had. Fresh ideas are not merely philosophy, they present a challenge to the status quo. A consequence of this contest is that Jeandupeux was at Le Mans, not Lyon, Frank was in Mainz not Munich and Rangnick was 41 before he was given a job in the Bundesliga at Stuttgart. He lasted less than two years.

The status quo will fight back and the distrust of philosophy in football is almost philosophical. Jose Mourinho was smirked at when he briefly invoked Hegel at Manchester United, though there were other reasons for that of course.

Even in this age of Guardiola there is still scepticism within football at someone who turns up armed with the ‘P’ word. They can be dismissed as theorists.

We understand - if someone is parroting an idea, it becomes evident quickly. We prefer the authenticity of, say, Neil Warnock, at least until kick-off. Guardiola - ‘Fraudiola’ - has suffered, has been questioned as to whether his philosophy would transform Walsall or Accrington Stanley. It is legitimate, focusing on the practicalities of players of lesser abilities implementing possession football to the level Guardiola aspires.

This is a crucial question as Rangnick arrives at Old Trafford, where he becomes the fifth manager since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Rangnick encounters a squad containing Juan Mata, signed by David Moyes, plus players recruited by Louis van Gaal, Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. How appropriate is the personnel to his idea and vice versa?

It may not be smooth; as Rangnick said yesterday: “Right now we have to be realistic. The difference between us and the top three is big.”

But his appearance in Manchester does offer evidence of a shift in perspective on philosophy. Rangnick has been signed because of the football idea he represents as much as his managerial record - the same reason Leeds United and others go for Marcelo Bielsa.

This is not to herald the triumph of philosophy. The author and philosopher Richard Peters wrote: “Most of the important books in philosophy have been written by men who were either worried or excited” - and the complacent boardroom at United will most certainly have become worried recently about their top-four dividend. Fear of missing out is certainly a factor in Rangnick’s arrival.

They should see an upturn. The fixture list has given Rangnick a chance: Crystal Palace at home on Sunday are followed by Brighton and Burnley; away it is Norwich, then Brentford and Newcastle. December is easier than November.

It is just a feeling, but among supporters at clubs with ‘traditional’ appointments, there is a sense is they are eager to experience different ways of thinking. They are keen on systems - seriousness, tactics and strategy - as much as individual brilliance. They are excited by the new idea. They want to be part of something smart.

And no one can deny Rangnick’s independent intelligence. Ten years ago a couple of us cornered him in a corridor at Schalke’s stadium after the elimination of reigning champions, Internazionale, from the Champions League. This set up a semi-final with Manchester United. One of Schalke’s defenders was a 19 year-old Joel Matip.

Rangnick’s Schalke knocked Inter Milan out of the Champions League in 2011. Photograph: Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Rangnick’s Schalke knocked Inter Milan out of the Champions League in 2011. Photograph: Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

We asked Rangnick about Brighton because he studied English in the town in 1979-80. He played for a local club, Southwick, and when he left the players bought him a farewell present, a 1980 FA Cup final ticket.

“I lived with a family and I am still in contact with them today,” Rangnick said. “Twice a week I would take the fast train to London and watch a First Division game. I’d see either Arsenal or Tottenham usually. But Brighton and Hove Albion were in the First Division then, so I’d go to the old Goldstone Ground. It was one of the best years of my life.”

He talked about reading Dickens, specifically Hard Times, a novel based in Coketown - a version of industrial revolution Manchester. “It was hard times to read his work,” Rangnick joked.

Now the theorist is there - serious, tactical, strategic and credible - to put philosophy into practice.

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