Ralf Rangnick: Football Encapsulated

German coaches are the new top-of-the-line range for modern football managers, for the most part. Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Julian Nagelsmann at Bayern Munich to name a few. This is no coincidence – the coaching revolution that’s happening among German managers is all thanks to one guy: Ralf Rangnick.

Starting his coaching career at just 19 years old before going into professional football at 25, Rangnick has been around in the German and European coaching scene for a long time. When he started coaching in the 1970s, it was very unfashionable to be a coach without first being a highly established player. Rangnick played in the lower depths of the German second division and had a very uninspiring playing career.

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Rangnick’s philosophy of coaching, a style referred to as gegenpressing, was completely beyond his time when he first started coaching. It is a style that puts a heavy emphasis on pressing and counter-pressing the opponents, almost harassing the opposition into making fatal errors and spinning them around and around until they just collapse.

Gegenpressing also utilises the idea of attacking a team’s defence with complete positional fluidity – running rings around any sort of traditional man- or zonal-marking system: a form of attacking that players such as Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo could excel in.

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Or, in Rangnick terms: “It [gegenpressing] is very simple. It is a very proactive style of football, similar to the way in which Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool have been playing under Klopp. We like to press high, with a very intense counter-pressure. When we have the ball, we do not like any square or back passes.

One special thing about Ralf Rangnick is he is not just a coach. His ideology expands all the way across the entire maintenance of a modern football club – playing style, recruitment strategies, youth team setups, youth team integration… He is a very unique commodity in the modern game.

Early coaching career

Talking to ESPN, Rangnick walked through why it is so important to have coaching experience from a young age: “The top coaches are not only good leaders of their team but they are also experts in the different areas of the game. If you look at the Bundesliga, more than half of the 18 coaches have not had a significant professional career but rather started to develop their methodological skills in youth football.

As mentioned before, Rangnick’s coaching style was completely different to the traditional German style that was around at the beginning of his career. “I wanted to play in a different way,” he said.

One particular man and one particular team inspired him a lot during his initial years as a coach. Helmut Groß, a heavily influential and revolutionary advisor in German football, was a pivotal character in Rangnick’s early coaching career. “He introduced me to the ball-orientated zone-marking technique, which was being implemented at AC Milan. We studied AC Milan hours and nights on end, and it became clear that this was the style of football I wanted to play with my teams.

And thus, gegenpressing was born.

Ralf’s big breakthrough

It was December 1998. Ralf Rangnick had been given an opportunity to present his philosophy live on a German TV channel, ZDF SportsStudio TV. During the presentation, he showed Germany his style of coaching and tactics, and it was not long before he was being dubbed “The Football Professor”.

Although this nickname seems one of admiration and respect, it was actually initially sarcasm – people doubted his philosophy would work anywhere else but in a theoretical setting.

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The reaction from the media as well as others in football was extraordinary,” Rangnick detailed. “The main reason for this was that 30 years before, Franz Beckenbauer set the benchmark for most teams in our country when he created a libero-sweeper position for himself.

Franz himself even said in the mid-’90s that you cannot play with a zone-marking back four line because German players will not understand how to play it. I asked myself, why should German players be any less intelligent than those in Belgium, Spain or the Netherlands? For me, that was simply not logical.

His modern career

Germany crashed out of Euro 2000 at the group stage, and that was a big turning point for German football. After this disaster of a campaign, the German football federation led a review of their entire footballing system, and Rangnick used this to his advantage to breed a new age of footballing philosophy in Germany.

His first full job after this German football collapse and beginning of their rebuild was at Hannover, where he spent 3 years there (2001-04) and got them promoted to the top division. He also spent a year at Schalke, however, it was his next job that really rocketed his career into the limelight.

Taking over at Hoffenheim in 2005, by 2008 he had led them from being a small village team in the third tier of German football to the first division. It is a rather spectacular achievement when you think about it, because thanks to Rangnick, Hoffenheim were able to turn themselves from a semi-pro team to a side that qualifies for the Champions League in under 15 years.

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Ralf remembers the time fondly. “What we did in Hoffenheim had a lot of influence on German football. I remember in our first year in the Bundesliga in 2008 we played Borussia Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp, who came from Mainz to Dortmund, and we dominated them 4-1.

It could easily have been six or seven, because we continuously pressed them for the entire game. The following week Jurgen said that this is exactly the style of football he wants to play with Dortmund in the future. During the next two years he developed his team in such an impressive manner that they managed to win two consecutive championship titles and two cups.

After a quick stint at Schalke in 2011 (where they reached the Champions League semi-finals) Ralf Rangnick’s next job in 2012 was being sporting director of Red Bull’s football army – his most famous job to date. During this period, he brought unparalleled types of approaches to football which completely changed the scene in Germany.

By using youth as a catalyst for sporting achievement, aided by heavy emphasis on analysis and using technology within football, he created two of the most formidable sides in Europe – RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg. RB Leipzig are now one of the best clubs in Germany and regularly push for Champions League places, while RB Salzburg are by far and away the best club in Austria.

The other Red Bull sides, New York Red Bulls and Red Bull Brazil are also continuing to develop within their system.

A love for the English game

Ralf Rangnick has always loved English football. At University, he studied PE and English, and spent a year at the University of Sussex in Brighton. In an interview with The Times, he reveals his time in England was very centred around football.

I had my fast train to London Victoria and watched Arsenal at Highbury, West Ham at Upton Park, Tottenham at White Hart Lane. When Brighton were at home I went to the old Goldstone Ground.

Astonishing for me was the atmosphere in stadiums. I saw on TV the waves [of fans swaying] behind the goal and thought, ‘How does that happen?’ I decided, like a guinea pig, to try it myself so I went to Highbury, to the Clock End, and have never had so much fear in my life.

I watched a cup tie at the Goldstone, Brighton v Liverpool, a boring zero-zero, raining all the time, but still there was that sense of humour of British fans. The Brighton supporters were singing ‘Seagulls! Seagulls!’ And Liverpool were singing back, ‘Seaweed! Seaweed!’”

He didn’t just experience English football from a fans’ perspective – he also played in non-league football himself. Playing just his second game for Southwick, he was completely crushed by a defender, breaking his ribs and puncturing his lung in just his second game, landing him in hospital for 4 weeks.

I experienced English physicality, and it was a completely different culture and style of football. As a midfielder, the ball flew all the time over my head.“But the important lesson was the way they were coaching each other, the players and the coaches. Always ‘come on’, always trying to encourage. I learnt how important this is in football, that you encourage and push each other on the pitch.

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In his Times interview, he expressed his desire to work in English football: “I would love to work in England and I feel I could start from day one there, but it would have to be something special. It depends on what club and if they are willing to have a German coach.”

And what could be more special than working for the greatest club in English history… Manchester United.

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