Ralf Rangnick demands players who run hard – but he must also adapt to Cristiano Ronaldo

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Ralf Rangnick likes young players who listen closely and run hard and when Manchester United looked at a squad low on confidence, and lacking a strong playing style to sustain them in difficult times, it was the profile of a singular German coach that stood out.

Rangnick, 63, is a rarity in the European game in that he has had success as coach and director of football – albeit not the kind of success that United managers are supposed to command. There are no top-flight league titles or European Cups in Rangnick’s past. Instead, he has added value at start-ups like Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig and conjured two seasons to remember at the perennially doomed enterprise that is Schalke 04. With that kind of history also comes a feeling of distrust among those for whom the responsibility of appointment hangs heavy. They ask themselves the question: what exactly is he?

Many have been close before, including Chelsea and Everton. United, facing a long, cold midwinter, needed a strong coach to guide them on an interim basis to the end of the season and it meant that certain doubts had to be pushed aside. The fundamentals to which Rangnick cleaves are sharp patterns of play, strictly choreographed pressing formations, hungry young footballers ready to be pushed to the limits.

In the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Scott McTominay, Donny Van De Beek and even Aaron Wan-Bissaka – you might say that United have that. There is also value to be gained from those in their late twenties: the likes of Fred, Jesse Lingard, the struggling Bruno Fernandes. Even the out of form Luke Shaw about whom Rangnick once expressed grave doubts in a time when he never presumably anticipated being United manager.

This is not a club at the end of a process in which they need finessing into champions – for now it is a simple rescue job in which the room for improvement has to be fully explored.

The great challenge will be how the original Herr Gegenpressing adapts to Cristiano Ronaldo. Even the most devout of Rangnick’s school of hard running and tactical absolutism knows that, for a select few players in the game, exceptions have to be made. Rangnick and Ronaldo could be one of the great collaborations of modern football, between the manager who loves footballers to run and the footballer who prefers to conserve running only for the moments when it is strictly necessary. Or, indeed, it could be something else.

Rangnick is the pick of John Murtough, the football director, and his colleague Darren Fletcher, the technical director, both of whom have only occupied their current roles since March. None of United’s four previous post-Ferguson appointments have been made by a director of football and the choice of Rangnick speaks of the different flavour of the process this time around.

This is not the appointment of a big populist, off-the-peg coaching brand – a Jose Mourinho or a Louis Van Gaal. Instead this one has rather more of a connoisseurship about it. Rangnick is a man whose reputation is perhaps greater within the sport, and the industry itself, than outside football and among those who consume it. A consequence of his many coaching  protegees. And of all those many pilgrimages by directors of football, including Murtough himself, from clubs great and small, to Germany or Austria or latterly Moscow, to see one of the originals of their business.

Rangnick’s career had not previously seen him handed control of any of the big guns of the European game – far from it. In the past, he has had greater resources relative to others at the level that Hoffenheim and the Red Bull clubs have aspired to leave behind at the start of their journeys. Now he finds himself on the bridge of one of the biggest ships at all, with everyone in some state of anxiety. Also attractive in his past is that twice before as the director of football for Red Bull he stepped up to take over the manager’s job in Leipzig, with some success, during coaching interregnums.

Post-Ferguson, United have never landed their first-choice coach, largely because they have never single-mindedly identified that man or indeed seem to know what qualities he might have. Now, as another crisis engulfs the club and with options limited, they have alighted on a candidate who represents as distinctive an approach as any who have followed Ferguson. In many ways, United’s hand has been forced, although in a difficult place they have at least chosen the most interesting of the options open to them.  

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