big gap | 

Ralf Rangnick’s eye for talent has the potential to annoy Liverpool and put Man United on track

The gap to Anfield club has grown in the table but signing the right players will be crucial if it is to close

Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick greets Paul Pogba as he leaves the field of play. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA


Richard Jolly©

Jurgen Klopp can often sound prophetic but not when he was discussing the appointment of another evangelist for the pressing game. “Not good news for other teams,” said Klopp when Ralf Rangnick became Manchester United’s interim manager.

The eventual verdict, should either clinch a Champions League place at United’s expense, might actually be that it proved rather good news for Tottenham or Arsenal.

Klopp could praise from a position of strength. Liverpool had helped expose the incoherence of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s management, surging into a 5-0 lead after 50 minutes at Old Trafford.

Klopp argued yesterday that Rangnick has made a difference. “You can see the changes he made, the parts he improved,” he said.

Yet the caveat underlined the sense that this is not a Rangnick team, not one defined by intensity or fluency. “He took a difficult job, with no time to get there,” Klopp added.

No time to catch Liverpool, anyway. They were eight points ahead of United when Solskjaer was sacked. Rangnick was never likely to be a threat to them over a season; it would take a dramatic improvement in United’s performance level for him to derail their title challenge at Anfield tonight.

The potential danger stems instead from arguably Rangnick’s greater strength. United may have appointed gegenpressing’s greatest sporting director as manager. The German’s future consultancy role is vaguely defined at the moment – “we have agreed upon a contract as an advisor”, he said 10 days ago – and it might feel typical of United if he ended up as another highly paid person on the payroll who actually did little.

Use his expertise, however, and Rangnick has the potential to irritate Liverpool. Few have a better insight into what Klopp wants than a man who shares similar beliefs and has a track record of signing such players.

The Red Bull clubs became an elite finishing school during Rangnick’s time as director of football. Liverpool bought Naby Keita, Takumi Minamino and Ibrahima Konate from either Salzburg or Leipzig. Sadio Mane, the first great Klopp buy for Liverpool, is also a great Rangnick signing, taken to Salzburg for £3.6m. But for a Covid crunch on their finances, they would probably have purchased Timo Werner in 2020.

And if they can reflect that proved a lucky escape, with Diogo Jota instead emerging as a more prolific alternative, there are hints that Karim Adeyemi has attracted Liverpool’s attention now.

Meanwhile, Rangnick also managed Joel Matip at Schalke and helped sign Roberto Firmino for Hoffenheim; like his later sidekick Mane, the Brazilian was bought at 20, his ability recognised when he was still a work in progress.

If Brendan Rodgers’s scouting policy was jokingly described as having a season ticket for Southampton, recruitment in the Klopp years has involved studying plenty of footage from the Red Bull empire. That is Rangnick’s specialist subject. He was the talent-spotter supreme.

Liverpool’s rise has been propelled by brilliant recruitment. Klopp has had an absurdly high strike-rate when buying. It is partly about identifying targets, partly about sealing the deal. They have tended to master each element whereas United arguably only have one genuinely outstanding signing – Bruno Fernandes – since Alex Ferguson retired.

It is why Rangnick could be invaluable if used correctly. Speaking more like a director of football than a manager, he outlined the requirements last month: “You have to be quick enough, fast enough in the transfer market, knowing the transfer market and signing the right players in the right moment.” In short, you have to be Liverpool.

United usually possess the funds. What they have lacked is the clarity of thought, the speed of reaction, the persuasive powers or the idea of how to use players. They contrived to bid for Mane the year before Liverpool signed him, though, in a reminder that Mauricio Pochettino and Klopp can like the same players, Tottenham presented the opposition in 2016. Fabinho was of interest to United but Liverpool stole a march on them.

With a lower net spend than United, Chelsea and Manchester City over recent years, Liverpool have less margin for error. Their trump card has come from being right time and again. But many a United signing, from Paul Pogba to Cristiano Ronaldo, was not on their radar. They have often shopped in different markets in a time when United have bought stars but Liverpool have made them.

That may change if Rangnick gets his way. He has said United need more physicality. He has submitted his recommendations to United’s board about the current players. It remains to be seen if they listen. He can be an Anglophile in recruitment – he took Emile Smith Rowe to RB Leipzig and wanted Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham, both Klopp-type players and the teenager perhaps the ideal Liverpool buy this summer – but has an extensive knowledge of his homeland.

Rangnick has often been ahead of the curve; further ahead even than Liverpool, arguably. Or, at the least, he signed players at a stage in their development when they were not ready to make a mark at Anfield.

Liverpool took note of improvement at Leipzig and Salzburg; so, in cases like those of Erling Haaland and Dayot Upamecano, did others.

Now Liverpool are transitioning into an era without the influential Michael Edwards, the departing sporting director; some of his replacement Julian Ward’s background and contacts lie in South America and Portugal, rather than Germany and Austria, and Luis Diaz represents an auspicious arrival. The sense may be that Klopp and Peter Krawietz, his assistant coach, are the central European experts at Anfield.

United can call on the services of another, in a man entering his final few games in the dugout. Whether they will is instructive. In the low-profile football director John Murtough, the technical director – and touchline presence – Darren Fletcher and CEO Richard Arnold, they have a new power structure. In Erik ten Hag, they will have a manager who will have his own ideas.

But they will have someone with a better record of recruitment than any, a consultant whose past suggests he could make United’s scattergun spending more targeted and whose history indicates he would want the same type of players as their fiercest rivals and, in some cases, the same individuals.

United have fallen so far that it was relatively uncontroversial when, last month, Rangnick named enemies as role models. He argued that Liverpool and City had recruited well over five or six years. At Old Trafford, he argued, “maybe in two or three transfer windows the situation could be different”.

Their vast resources give them a chance to catch up, or simply to disrupt others’ plans. There are precedents of teams who recruit well, spawning imitators. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal lost their competitive advantage when others started to target the French market. Liverpool may be football’s moneyballers and their owner, John W Henry, sought – albeit unsuccessfully – to hire Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane for the Boston Red Sox.

It is a moot point if Edwards or Rangnick is a closer footballing counterpart, while time will tell if the German is merely a footnote in United history.

For now, a relationship with Klopp that has dated back two decades is on hold. There has been no contact between them since the older man joined United. But it remains a mutual-admiration society and perhaps Klopp’s December compliments reflected a fear Rangnick was brought in to shape the direction of the club and make United adopt Liverpool’s ethos.

If so, while a rivalry will be renewed for 90 minutes on the Anfield pitch, the more enduring battle will be in the transfer market.

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