Former RB Leipzig chief Ralf Rangnick oversaw the signing of Tyler Adams from partner club New York Red Bulls and believes "the sky is the limit" for the USMNT midfielder thanks to his mentality and will-to-win attitude.
In an in-depth exclusive interview with bundesliga.com, Rangnick discusses the title race between Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, the tactical advancements of football over the last few years, and what it takes for a player to reach the very top - something he believes Adams can achieve...
bundesliga.com: What makes Leipzig so strong in your opinion? Is it just the good defence, or is there more to it than that?
Ralf Rangnick: "For the most part the team has been playing together for six or seven years. Some players were even here in the third division and a lot of them gained promotion from the second division into the first alongside me. That means the team know each other and know how to play together. Over the years the players have matured and gained experience and have of course improved through that. The hard work of the coach plays a part too. Julian [Nagelsmann] has done exactly what we had hoped for. That's why we waited a year for him. It was a strategic decision from me at the time, to be the man pitch-side for a year, and it has completely paid off. Julian has developed the team a step further in the footballing sense in the last one-and-a-half, or one-and-three-quarter, years. With all of that in mind, RB have an exceptional set of circumstances that mean they can do well whether they have the ball or the opposition have it."
Watch: RB Leipzig reloaded - tactical analysis
bundesliga.com: The top-of-the-table clash with Bayern on Matchday 27 will probably be a decisive one. What do you expect from that match?
Rangnick: "I think it'll be a very tight game, just as the last few have been. I think the last three games between the two teams have been drawn and in the years before we were close to beating them at times. I remember the cup game back then, with a few questionable decisions as far as penalties and red cards were concerned. It has been very close in recent years and I expect more of the same this time. I think it'll be a very close game which will come down to small factors like who can take the lead first or who's able to control the flow of the match. I think it'll depend a bit on form because of that. I can see a few advantages as far as the bench is concerned because I believe RB have a deeper squad than Bayern at the moment. Even so, when Bayern have everybody available and fit, which is difficult at the moment due to injuries and coronavirus, they're the measuring stick for everyone. In a single game, anything can happen though and I think it's a very even tie that I see as 50/50 going into it."
bundesliga.com: Who will finish the season as German champions and why?
Rangnick: "I think the game between the two will be something of a decider. It isn't the be-all and end-all, but it'll play a big part. Bayern lead by four points, so RB really need to win against them. RB are in a position where they practically have to win the game to stay in the title race. It's leaning towards Bayern at the moment, but that game will be a big indication of who will win. If it's a draw or if RB win then it could really be an exciting race until the final day of the season."
bundesliga.com: Do you believe Leipzig can begin to really match Bayern at the top of German football?
Rangnick: "Due to the financial situation Bayern, who at a rough estimate have twice the financial resources in their budget, will be the leading power in German football until that changes. I don't see that changing in the next few years either. In spite of that opportunities might present themselves from time-to-time, perhaps even this season, as we just discussed. In the future, RB will continue to keep pace at the top as long as they don't make any mistakes in player transfers or head coaching appointments. If RB stay true to the path that got them where they are today, they'll continue to be strong. Even so, Bayern will be difficult to overtake in the near future due to the financial advantage they have."
Watch: Rangnick on Leipzig vs. Bayern
bundesliga.com: What sets RB apart at the moment? Is it the strength of the defensive unit?
Rangnick: "Leipzig are still notable for their aggressive counter-pressing and when they have been able to put that on the pitch effectively they've been good in recent games. I think the mixture of both is important. They have good solutions in possession against deep-lying defences. But against stronger opposition, particularly opponents who attack them and challenge them, as you saw against Mainz and now Liverpool and at times against Frankfurt too, problems can be created for Leipzig. I think the balance is key. When the balance between possession and aggressive pressing and counter-pressing is right then Leipzig are at their best."
bundesliga.com: In your opinion, what tactical changes has football undergone in recent times?
Rangnick: "The pace of the game has definitely increased. Pressing and counter-pressing are now standard at a lot of clubs, particularly at the top level. That's something the best clubs have in common; they attack high. Whether it's Manchester City or, at least when they have something approaching a fully fit squad, Liverpool. RB Leipzig and Bayern can be added to that. They attack very early, generally speaking, and hassle opponents by going into the counter-press very early when possible. That's something that has been developed in recent years. Added to that are opposition-specific and game-specific tactical base setups and the transition between them in-game. The transition between playing-styles is important too. The ability to play in different ways in the same game sets the biggest teams apart. There are still individual differences between the clubs. We spoke about Liverpool before. They almost always set up the same way, in a 4-3-3 and try to impose their style on the opposition, whereas other clubs are often more flexible."
bundesliga.com: How important are modern data analytics to a modern coach and their tactics?
Rangnick: "I think you have to differentiate between video analytics and big data. Video analytics began in around 2005 or 2006. I remember back in Hoffenheim with Lars Kornetka, we practically created that branch of the business. Lars Kornetka was, in Germany at least, the first professional full-time video-analyst and in my opinion, is still one of the leading proponents of the role today. That field has continued to grow and succeed and most Bundesliga teams have two, or three in Leipzig's case, full-time video-analysts who do the pre and post-match analysis and support the head coach. When you talk about big data I see the situation a little differently because the risk that you don't put that data to use effectively is considerable. That's because the algorithms often don't have predictive power that is useful to a football team. That makes sense to me because they were originally developed by gambling companies and their directors or financial experts. Their reasons for using data and their goals are often not aligned with those of a football coach, so that's why I'm still somewhat sceptical and careful with regards to big data in opposition scouting. In the future, those fields will continue to grow in importance because information is an advantage, but you have to know how to make that information contribute to wins for your club and your team."
bundesliga.com: Which club or clubs do you think particularly stand out tactically?
Rangnick: "I think the clubs who have dominated the Champions League in recent years, and this year again if you look at this year's final eight or last years' final four, then it's clear that if you want to be sustainably successful you have to perform at the highest level in all five of the relevant areas. The first is what happens when you have the ball yourself; how you play against deep-lying or high-pressing opposition. You should be at the top-level in that area and have solutions for that. Then it's also important whether the team has a plan for when the opposition have possession and what that plan is, i.e. how do I regain possession and what techniques do I try to use when the opposition has the ball? Transitions between those two areas are important too; what do you do at the exact moment when you win the ball or vice-versa when you lose it? The keywords there are counter-pressing and quick transitions. The fifth area is set pieces: free-kicks, corners, penalties, whatever. Over 30 percent of goals come from those situations, so they're decisive. Recent years in the Champions League, both this year and last year, have shown that you have to do well in every area if you want to succeed in that competition. If you look at who is in the final eight now and add one or two who were in the final four last year then you can see that what sets them apart is that they're at a very high level in all of those five areas."
bundesliga.com: Which clubs are those?
Rangnick: "If you look to England it's Manchester City at the moment. Liverpool as well, even if they're not currently in the top-four in the table. Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel are on a very good path and that emphasises the importance of a head coach or a coaching team. When you look at Chelsea now and compare them to a few months ago there is a huge difference. I think they've conceded two goals in the last 10 games, they're very solid defensively. Despite that, they still play well with the ball and are always good for a goal or two. That's why, as a rule, they win their games at the moment. I would count Chelsea as one of the top teams at the moment and I would consider them outside favourites for the Champions League title, if not quite dark-horses. In Spain it's the three who are top of the table, although I don't see any of the three; Atletico [Madrid], Barcelona and Real [Madrid] as being quite at the top level internationally. That has something to do with the pace they play at and the physicality they display. Those three teams don't give the impression at the moment that they can deliver the highest level of performances on the pitch. I see Italy in a similar light at the moment. To us, the two Milan teams are the leaders. Inter will probably win the title and have also probably got the most individual player quality. In France, PSG are having a lot of trouble this season. I even see it as distinctly possible that Lille will be champions ahead of them this season. We have spoken about the German teams already."
bundesliga.com: What is important to the modern football player. What does the perfect player have in their locker?
Rangnick: "I think it's obvious that a player should be technically capable of playing at the highest level, but the two things that have been top of our scouting criteria at RB in recent years are swiftness of action and mentality. Those are the two most important factors in my opinion. If you consider for example Joshua Kimmich or Thomas Müller, both of them are good in every technical area of football but aren't really exceptional in any way. The complete package is what sets those two players apart and where they're exceptional is with regards to mentality. Particularly now, during the coronavirus, you can hear players on the pitch and both of them are the leaders of the team. You can always hear those two on the pitch and they're practically player-coaches or an extension of the coach on the pitch. They constantly have an impact verbally on what's happening on the pitch and that is precisely because of the leadership role they have on the pitch and because they have an exceptional mentality."
Watch: Kimmich - Bayern's indispensable leader
bundesliga.com: What characteristics does the modern head coach need to have?
Rangnick: "I can certainly say what has changed in the last 20 years. When I think back to my time at SSV Ulm, which was 22 or 23 years ago, I had an assistant coach and a goalkeeping coach and that was it. Most other clubs didn't have any more than that in terms of staff either. These days you have 20, 25 or 30 staff members, depending on who you count. If you include medical staff it's probably 25 or 30. You're their manager too and have to be the point of contact for all of those people. The media interactions have to be considered as well and those have hardly decreased, so media departments have sprung up. Then you also have the 25 or 30 players in your squad. That means that people management has become more challenging and as a good head coach, you have to be a people manager first and foremost; someone who deals with people and enjoys doing so. That leads us to the subject of empathy. I think the really good coaches deal with all of those people in the right way and are ready to listen and to lend a helping hand when that's needed or asked for. Exactly those things are the key to modern management. A degree of curiosity is important too so that you're open to new developments in the sport. Technical knowledge of the field is of course also important. We mentioned the extensive staff earlier and it's important that you allow the best people, who you hopefully employ, to do their best work. That means delegating and trusting in other staff members also plays a role. Even so you have to be interested in each relevant field and know the basics, because delegation isn't about putting your feet up and letting everyone do what they want. As a head coach you have to understand what's going on in each department, be it training sessions, sports psychology or nutrition. You have to have sufficient technical knowledge in each field. Ideally you also have the best man for each job in your team and you must trust them to do their jobs, because it only makes sense to employ the best people if they have the freedom to put their ideas into action."
bundesliga.com: What makes Julian Nagelsmann such an outstanding head coach?
Rangnick: "Julian is one of the most gifted head coaches we have in Germany. There is no question about that. You can't forget that, although he is only 33 years old, he has been coaching since he was 21. We first met in Backnang when his Hoffenheim U16s were playing against the U17s of TSG Backnang where my son played. I had the day off and watched the match that morning and Julian noticed that I was there. As I was head coach of Hoffenheim at the time Julian got in touch right away and wanted to know what I made of his team and his coaching. That was certainly impressive and unusual to see from, at the time, a 22-year-old coach. We have kept in touch since then and even though he is only 33 he has been a football coach for 11 years and a senior men's coach for six years I think. If you look at what he has achieved in that time, be it in Hoffenheim where he saved them from almost certain relegation and then took them to the Europa League and the Champions League, or in his two years at Leipzig. He is an exceptionally gifted coach, particularly in those relevant fields. He's extremely well-versed in tactics and has the ability to think a step or two ahead. In terms of empathy and dealing with players his age even helps, because he genuinely shares interests and hobbies with them and has an understanding of everything, be it players' music tastes or hobbies and interests. It helps him in that sense. The authority he has because of his technical knowledge and because he makes the players better is one of the biggest factors in his ability to motivate them. Regardless of the field, be it football or something else, when the students or the players feel that the coach or the teacher is making them better, as a rule they follow that person. The biggest motivating factor is the feeling that you're improving under a certain man or in a certain team."
Watch: How Hoeneß masterminded Hoffenheim's defeat of 32-game unbeaten Bayern
bundesliga.com: How do you see Hoffenheim developing under head coach Sebastian Hoeneß?
Rangnick: "In 2010 Hoffenheim decided they should stand on their own feet without financial aid from sponsors such as Dietmar Hopp or SAP. They've done extremely well in that regard. It is now their 13th or 14th year in the Bundesliga and they've qualified for the European competitions a few times as well. That came about through an intelligent and sustainable transfer policy around players and coaches. There was a period in which they weren't very lucky with the coaching appointments, just after I stopped in 2011. We were closer to Bundesliga 2 in that time and were fighting to avoid relegation. Since it has stabilised there with Alexander Rosen taking over the sporting leadership of the club with his team, they have more comfortably avoided relegation, stabilised and helped build some coaching careers. We have already mentioned Julian Nagelsmann and now with Sebastian Hoeneß, it's the same. They've shown the courage to appoint a young man and, as a coach at least, something of a blank slate; to give him a chance. Last year he won the third division with Bayern Munich's second team and that contributed to him being given this opportunity. I think that's fantastic. I've known Sebastian since 2006 when I signed him as a player for a year in Hoffenheim. Since then I've followed his development closely and I brought him to Leipzig as a youth coach. We spoke a lot in that time and I'm extremely glad to see him succeed, particularly because due to his name things are often more difficult, not easier. He always wanted to be measured by his own achievements and by what he developed, so that's why I'm genuinely happy to see him given the chance and to see him taking it."
bundesliga.com: What are his greatest strengths?
Rangnick: "Similar things again. He's very intelligent and knowledgeable in the relevant fields and an analytical approach. But he's also good at dealing with players. They react very well to his manner of speaking to them. In principle, he is also someone who brings a lot to the table and who can put the whole package to use."
bundesliga.com: You have known Oliver Glasner for a long time as well. What has he done this season to make Wolfsburg so good?
Rangnick: "I can't say from distance what exactly he's doing and has done. I can only talk about how he has come across to me. In 2012, in the Salzburg training camp in Leogang, we went jogging together every morning. At some point, on our second or third run he asked me 'Ralf, would it make sense for us to sit down with Roger Schmidt, because we're still looking for an assistant coach.' He wasn't sure if he saw himself as more of a coach rather than sitting in the back office and helping the club develop in the right way. I decided we should speak with Roger Schmidt and two days later Oliver was his assistant. He was in that position for two years and helped progress the team along with Roger. Roger wanted to take him along to Leverkusen, I believe, but he decided to take the head coaching position at SV Ried instead. He did really well there and earned himself a move to Linz where he took LASK to promotion and lead them to the top of the Austrian Bundesliga. For me, it was only a question of when he would take the next step up to the Bundesliga. He's somebody who people tend to underestimate due to his personality and his unflappable and unexcitable nature. I think he's one of the most underrated coaches in the Bundesliga. He'll continue his journey and I think the step up to VfL Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga was the perfect next step. When you look at what he gets out of the team it's almost the absolute maximum. They're a team with some good players, but they aren't so good as to be automatic favourites for third place in the Bundesliga. That shows that a lot of hard work from the coaches is involved."
Rangnick: "That has really developed by itself alongside everything else. It began in Hoffenheim where Markus Gisdol was U23 coach and then became my assistant for six months during my second tenure at Schalke. Unfortunately, it wasn't longer. Those things weren't explicitly on the agenda at Hoffenheim and RB, although of course, we did scout coaches because from the day I signed on the dotted line I was looking for two new head coaches at Salzburg and Leipzig. From that moment on we always scouted coaches alongside players. We had something of a list for the head coaching position because you never know when you will need a new one. At every stage, we always had one or two coaches on our list who we would have liked to get. That didn't always work out, which is why I had to step in for a year each before Ralph Hasenhüttl and Julian Nagelsmann became available. That came about organically, to be honest. With the success of RB, we have now become a market leader due to the way we work, not just in coaching, but also in other roles. We have other people such as Frank Ählig, Jochen Schneider, Nicklas Dietrich or Hans-Dieter Hermann at the DFB who we haven't even talked about. They all spent some time with us. At this point, it's something of a seal of quality that if someone worked at RB for one, two, three or four years other clubs can assume they're really good people. For us it was like this: when we started in 2012 we decided it made sense to create synergies and we incorporated a clear playing style at both clubs. We decided we wanted to focus on young players with a lot of room for improvement, who were signing their first or second professional contract. Not their final or penultimate one, as had been the case previously. That breeds a different type of motivation and demand for performance within the two teams and then we searched for the best possible head coaches, assistant coaches and other specialists. They then progressed alongside the team and eventually became targets for other clubs. As I said, it was clear to us that we wanted to do things in that way. For coaches and specialists to develop in the same way as well was a very welcome side-effect that I didn't really have on my radar in the first two or three years."
bundesliga.com: What did you personally teach those head coaches?
Rangnick: "It obviously helped that I had spent most of my career previously as a head coach myself and knew how a head coach thinks. Right at the start, in the times of Roger Schmidt or Alex Zorniger, it was important for me to work out how far I could go and what lines I could or couldn't cross. There were a few moments of friction in the early years with those two coaches, where I had to realise they were right and I had tried to be too close to things. By the third year at the latest, I had built up the experience in that respect too, because it was my first time as a sporting director and not as a head coach. What did help me was the network I had already built because I knew quite well where the various top people were, be they head coaches, assistant coaches, sports psychologists, physios or fitness coaches. I already had a big enough network in all of those areas, or at least knew who I could ask to find someone in those areas. In the entire time there was never a role that we hadn't scouted. We scouted scouts, we scouted assistants, we even scouted chefs, because we always challenged ourselves to find the best person for a given job. I'm sure that was also key to the development we underwent. The basis of that for head coaches was always a deep and close trust and I think the coaches also realised eventually that having someone like me who understood what they were thinking and feeling was good for their development. I could give them advice in a friendly way and tell them, look I've been in that situation and I would do this or let that go. That certainly also contributed to the coaches accepting how closely I worked with them and allowing it to happen."
Watch: Tyler Adams at home in Leipzig
bundesliga.com: Why do you think the Bundesliga is such a well-suited home for players from the USA?
Rangnick: "I don't know if only the Bundesliga is a good home for them, I think other leagues have begun to realise that it's worthwhile from time-to-time to cast an eye over the MLS because there are players who are good enough and gifted enough to make the leap. That's logical on some level because the USA has a population of about 230 million people and purely statistically there should be some really good footballers there. The biggest hurdle in the USA was and still is, to an extent, the other four big sports and the scholarship system at the universities. In comparison to Germany or the other four top European leagues, it's much more difficult to plan a footballing career for yourself as a young man and their family. There are too many other lures to the other four big sports, because although they have salary caps there will be one or two more zeros on the contract. There's also the question of university scholarships and when you're 17 and get a scholarship offer at a university for four years that is something you really have to consider. Take the example of Tyler Adams. Tyler appeared on my radar at 16 or 17 when he was in the youth system at NY Red Bulls. He was someone like Joshua Kimmich, who we've already spoken about, who already had the exceptional mentality to want to be the best version of Tyler Adams the footballer he could be. He wouldn't be dissuaded of that, it was in his blood, and it was clear to us that he would become a leading player in the MLS. It was also clear to us that the next step for him was to go to Leipzig and that he didn't need an intermediate step on the way. That has proven to be correct, but now as before he's an exception."
bundesliga.com: What stands out about Tyler Adams?
Rangnick: "We spoke about Joshua earlier and Tyler is the same; he has an unbelievable will to win. He wants to win every match and every training game. He wants to improve and listens. He's never satisfied. He always strives for improvement and in terms of his tactical understanding, I prefer to see him in central midfield because then he's at the heart of the action. I don't like to see him out wide, although he can do that well and that makes him valuable to the team and to Julian. I see him similarly to Joshua Kimmich, in central midfield as a six or an eight. He has now started to score and create a few goals and I see his potential as being very high, the sky is the limit. As long as he maintains his mentality, and he won't lose it, I don't see any limits."
bundesliga.com: Why does the Bundesliga represent such a good opportunity for North-American players? Is it because they get game-time here?
Rangnick: "It's not always the case and [Alphonso] Davies is another exception, because like Tyler he's in a different league. There aren't many in the world who are better in his position, so he would probably have broken through anywhere. Of course, he had to be given the opportunity though and needs a coach who will do that. Hansi Flick did that. He didn't play much under Nico Kovac, only once Hansi Flick took over. It always depends on you being at the right club at the right time under the right coach. That wasn't any different for Tyler Adams. He was given the chance in his first half-season to play, when I was coach. I still don't expect there to be a great number of players coming over, due to issues I outlined earlier in the MLS. I think the average budget is about seven or eight million dollars, which is comparable to a third division team in Germany. I only expect that to change substantially when the budgets change in equal measure, but I don't see that as likely at the moment. The players who you just listed off did everything right. They moved to the right clubs to develop their careers. What a lot of Americans share is that spirit and that winning mentality. The need to further one's own development. What they generally don't have is the ego to start putting themselves above the good of the team. That's something all the players I've come across have shared. What was the one called who we had who is now playing at Halle? No, not [Gio] Reyna? He is an exceptional talent though. Terrence Boyd, exactly. Reyna should be counted among the three exceptional ones. Terrence Boyd was limited technically and in the footballing sense, but he had a fantastic mindset."