In one of Ralf Rangnick’s early training sessions, the German barked an instruction in a manner that startled some of the Manchester United players. Looks were exchanged. Quips soon followed.
Rangnick’s austere manner has become one of his more conspicuous characteristics, when he is actually on the training ground. Some of the players joke about how he’s “shouting again”. A few roll their eyes and wish he’d be less loud.
It’s the sort of thing that irritates other figures around the club, since they feel this group really could do with a bit of order and discipline.
Whatever the views on the current squad, though, it does point to a wider problem that maybe explains a lot of recent displays. That is the issue of “buy-in”, of connection.
Everyone by now knows Rangnick as the high priest of pressing, but you certainly wouldn’t have guessed that from United’s games. The performances look lethargic. The stats only back that up.
Opta say United’s average number of pressures in the final third this season is 43.4. The average under Rangnick is 41.8.
Even more pointedly, the highest numbers came against Chelsea and Arsenal. Those were the two league games under Michael Carrick.
The fewest of the season came in the nadir of the campaign, that 4-1 defeat away to Watford. which ended Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time as manager.
Rangnick hasn’t exactly electrified the squad since Solskjaer’s sacking, though. They’re just ticking along. It’s all so sedate.
The wonder is why. It’s obvious Rangnick wants them to press, but they’re not doing it. The explanation may be rather simple, even if it’s very difficult to figure out the solution.
Although pressing has come to shape the modern game more than any other aspect of the sport, it is dependent on the most old-fashioned of qualities. That is charisma. It is man-management. It is psychological connection. Proper pressing is after all hugely demanding, that requires players to really put it in.
One of the reasons that Liverpool go to the limits is because they are playing for Jurgen Klopp. They are responding to him. The same applies for Pep Guardiola. The Manchester City players can find the Catalan intense, but he has an unmistakable aura.
United are finding none of that with Rangnick.
You certainly don’t get the sense that he is doing what Sir Alex Ferguson used to, and keeping himself awake at night trying to think of new stories and lines to motivate his players.
Part of this is of course that Rangnick isn’t going to be one of Ferguson’s permanent successors. He is an interim, and the inherent nature of the role can mean responses are erratic. Guus Hiddink’s impressive first spell at Chelsea in 2009 was very different to the listlessness of his second in the 2015/16 campaign.
United players were said to be “hungry” for tactical instruction when Solskjaer left, because they hadn’t received much in half a decade.
They haven’t been sated by Rangnick. They don’t see as much of him as expected.
The German generally likes to leave a lot of training to his assistants. When he does get involved, he is seen as quite severe.
That has meant the United players have found the whole situation rather cold so far. It goes some way to explaining why up to 17 are considering their futures.
There is said to be little “emotional connection”.
In the most concerning development, a few sources say the players don’t really understand what Rangnick wants from them in terms of play. This partly explains the abrupt changes to formation. But not line-ups. In a continuation of a problem under Solskjaer, a core of players are frustrated that they are still not getting opportunities despite underwhelming results.
The general feeling is that the appointment has had a deflating effect, rather than the spark anticipated.
This all points to why Rangnick has only one season of top-flight managerial experience in the last decade, and why he has always been primarily seen as a director of football or in a role overseeing the coaching.
It could also point to a difficult season for some time to come.
That shouldn’t mean the players are blameless, though. Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent interview indicated some tensions and divisions within the squad, to go with so many other issues.
The attitude of a lot of players is openly being questioned. Many sources are more than willing to put the responsibility on their apparent fecklessness rather than any issue with Rangnick.
The German referenced his recent meeting with Edinson Cavani, and the Uruguayan is known to be one of those better disposed to what Rangnick wants. That’s not surprising, since he is seen as the ultimate professional. Thomas Tuchel and Cavani – or “Edi” as the former called him – used to stand around marvelling at some of the indulgences at Paris Saint-Germain.
United are nowhere near that level, but there are concerns that the squad has developed unhelpful habits.
Some well-connected sources who have worked with a few top players have spoken of how dressing rooms can get too used to getting rid of managers. There are fears that, even allowing for how Rangnick works, it had a double effect because certain players decided he didn’t have the stature for them even before he took a training session.
It is also where the knowledge that the 63-year-old isn’t going to be considered as a permanent option works against him. That’s despite the fact that he is staying on as a consultant, which should cause concern for some players.
More than a few could end up facing the clear-out that United need, if the club could actually offload them.
United have been restrained in the market generally. There is money available for Rangnick, but he has been prepared to wait. The club could maybe do with the charge that new signings would allow, especially in midfield. It is at least possible that central midfielders willing to press could change the pace, having a triggering effect on the whole squad. Rangnick has been considering Borussia Monchengladbach’s Denis Zakaria and Hoffenheim’s Diadie Samassekou.
The great hope is that the situation may not be terminal and that doesn’t just apply to this season.
Many of the same things were being said about the Chelsea players in 2015-16, with the entire culture of the club being questioned. Under the right manager the next season, they went and won the league.
That manager was of course Antonio Conte, who United so publicly passed on in autumn. There remains a feeling he would have asked demanding questions of the club; that he would have created noise.
The current squad haven’t really appreciated the noise Rangnick is making.
It has led to some hugely muted displays.
Up next, after the collapse against Aston Villa, is Brentford. They have much more modest players, but have greatly overachieved through forward-thinking principles. Chief among them are how the team is built on pressing.
It would be another embarrassment if they show United how it’s done. Rangnick and his team really need to show something else.