While their systems may differ, there are a number of fundamentals of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea that will serve new Manchester United boss Ralf Rangnick well.
You can almost imagine the board meeting. Sat around the table, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recording his funereal final interview next door, waiting for someone to make a sensible suggestion as to what comes next. Ed Woodward stood, pen raised in mid-air, next to a flip-chart bearing a few scrawled names.
Eric Ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino with lines through them; their contracts inextricable. Antonio Conte feverishly crossed out, for reasons known only to them. Steve Bruce at the bottom, with a question-mark. And then someone – Darren Fletcher, perhaps – says: “What about a German? They’re pretty handy.”
Such is the leap from cuddly old-boy to The Godfather of Gegenpressing, from decisions based on brand and sentiment to cold, hard footballing acumen, it is impossible to see this happening any other way. Jurgen Klopp had turned Liverpool from also-rans to champions. Thomas Tuchel had transformed a rag-tag Chelsea side led by a club legend – oh, the parallels – into Champions League winners within mere months. What was to say that they couldn’t do the same?
And Chelsea had actually looked to Rangnick before Tuchel, only to be turned down because the current Man Utd boss didn’t like the short-term option of the role.
“At the time, when Chelsea contacted me, they only spoke about the option to become interim manager for four months, without any prospective for the long-term,” Rangnick recalled at his first press conference as Man Utd manager.
“Here, we are talking about six and a half months. We only have one third of all the games played in the Premier League. As you all know, we have also agreed upon a two year advisory role after those six and a half months.
“In the end, to be honest, if a club like Manchester United contacts you for such a role, you cannot possibly turn it down.”
An omicron-ravaged month on from his arrival, and there is a more striking parallel that not even the soothsayers in the Man Utd boardroom could have envisaged. With games getting called off left, right and centre, the compressed schedule of last season is about to rear its troublesome head once more.
At present, Man Utd have two games to rearrange. While the winter break will almost certainly be used to accommodate them, it feels foolhardy to presume that there won’t be further postponements. As things stand, assuming they reach the quarter finals of the FA Cup and Champions League, Man Utd will have three midweeks free between now and the end of April. They are going to be, unless they balls up in the cup competitions, incredibly tight on time.
For any new manager, this is not ideal; for one such as Rangnick, attempting to turn a disorganised rabble into a functional football team, implementing a wholly new playing style in the process, this seems impossible. However, in his former mentee, there is some guidance to be found.
“He helped me a lot because he was my coach (at SSV Ulm) and then he was one of the main figures to convince me to try coaching so he had a huge influence on all of us at this time,” Tuchel said just before Rangnick was appointed as Man Utd manager.
“He showed us it’s not necessary to follow people to the toilet in football games because that was the belief in these days, that the defenders follow the strikers wherever they go. He showed us it’s possible to defend everybody in a zone.”
Tuchel, who only had two midweek breaks before the week of the Champions League final, was an unmitigated success at Chelsea. There are a number of reasons for this, all of them relevant to Rangnick’s Man Utd.
From a first look at Rangnick’s Man Utd, his main priority seems to be the same as Tuchel’s: sorting the defence. And for both, this was wholly necessary. Lampard’s Chelsea, just like Solskjaer’s Man Utd, conceded a goal-a-game, and the turnaround under Tuchel was staggering. The Blues conceded two in his first 14 in charge across all competitions, and only 15 across the whole half-season, a third of which came on a freakish aberration of an afternoon against West Brom.
Now, while the three-at-the-back that served Tuchel so well in this endeavour is not an option for Rangnick, who appears married to his 4-2-2-2 formation, Man Utd can still take their cue from what Chelsea have done so successfully. Namely, consistent, balanced selection, and an effective midfield.
At the back, Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta were mainstays, missing only five games between them on either side of Thiago Silva or Andreas Christensen. One of the things which made this so effective was that they were wholly certain of roles that wholly suited their playing styles – the two wide centre-backs defending their channels aggressively, pressuring the ball, in the knowledge that the cooler, more positionally-astute Silva/Christensen would be there to cover. So too, the solidifying presence of at least one of N’Golo Kanté, Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho who, between them, comprised the two-man midfield in 28 of Tuchel’s first 30 games.
Tuchel implemented this defensive system as his first port of call for obvious reasons. Being so short on time, the complex patterns involved in attacking play were challenging to instil, whereas defensive shape, for high-end professionals, is eminently coachable. And, simply put, it is more effective. If you don’t concede, you will win more games. Chelsea won 1-0 or 2-0 15 times under Tuchel last season, including in two semi-finals and a final.
With two goals conceded in his first four games in charge, the early evidence seems to suggest that Rangnick is attempting to impress upon his team the same principles, even if that number is largely reliant on some David de Gea heroics in goal. And, provided he can drill them in such a way so that they both know and are comfortable in their roles, he does have the personnel to build on this.
Despite their eerily convincing impressions of clueless muppets in the fortuitous draw against Newcastle, both Harry Maguire and Rafael Varane are very good defenders. If Rangnick can concoct a formula that plays to their strengths, similar to the Rudiger-Thiago-Azpilicueta triumvirate at Chelsea, between them they have all the attributes – Varane’s recovery pace and positioning, Maguire’s physical presence – to become a highly successful defensive pair.
Additionally, while Fred and Scott McTominay have their limitations, and neither is anyone’s idea of a Jorginho-esque figure, they showed during the Solskjaer-era that they can be an effective defensive screen. And in Fred, whose tackling, duelling and passing numbers are up significantly since Rangnick took over, it doesn’t feel too much of a stretch to say that they may have a poor man’s Kanté: a scurrying, combative midfielder to break up play and get it moving in the opposite direction (though Kanté certainly does more in attack now). The visualisation below shows just how Fred under Rangnick compares to Kante across the Premier League so far this season.
As stated, Rangnick’s system does have one body fewer in the defensive unit than Tuchel’s, but this has not prevented his sides from operating in a similarly miserly way in the past. The 2018/19 iteration of his RB Leipzig side led the Bundesliga in terms of tackles, interceptions and recoveries, and conceded the fewest goals. And that is, of course, largely due to the fabled press that has dominated the will he, won’t he, Cristiano Ronaldo narrative since Rangnick was announced.
With co-ordinated pressing essentially an issue of defensive shape, only further upfield, Tuchel was able to instil this as quickly as he was his back three, and absolutely fundamental to the that – and, in fact, everything good about Tuchel’s Chelsea – was another of his ever-presents: Mason Mount. It seems a while since the tiresome teacher’s pet discussions subsided, but there was some truth to the content there, if not the angle. Mason Mount is an inherently intelligent, teachable footballer, versatile enough to both lead the press and operate between the lines, in any system. His role was absolutely crucial to Chelsea’s success last season, both with and without the ball.
Rangnick likes to play with two ‘wide 10s’, who operate in a similar position – between the lines on the ball, the second press without it – and these are essential to his defensive and attacking systems.
While Marcus Rashford was unsuccessfully trialled in this position against Newcastle, it seems like Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho are most suitable. While arguably more maverick than Mount, with more of an eye for the spectacular and the individual, they are clearly both highly cognisant footballers. If they can be persuaded to buy into the manager’s plans, to operate in more structured roles than the freeform madness that they had grown used to, there is no reason why they cannot be incredibly effective.
As for Rashford himself, see Timo Werner. The most under-appreciated of Tuchel’s cornerstones, Werner played in every big game of Chelsea’s run-in, scoring only three but assisting six. While his finishing may have been unreliable, Werner’s ability to stretch defences with his movement, offering a quick, vertical out-ball at all times, was pivotal to victories against Manchester City and Real Madrid last term. And under whose tutelage were these skills honed? Ralf Rangnick’s, at Leipzig.
If he can have anything like this impact on Rashford – a mercurially-gifted but often wayward figure – Man Utd’s attack will be all the better for it. While the case for the defence is a sound place to start, goals generally help also.
And on that score, we return, inevitably, to Ronaldo. Goals, he will guarantee. As to whether a 36-year-old man who has achieved almost everything within the game can be transmogrified into a relentless, selfless, pressing machine, who knows? It could well be that he can’t, and it is this particular slapdash boardroom decision that derails the prospects of another. Yet, if he can, there is a sense that the latest instalment of the madcap United story could, possibly, potentially, work.