RB Leipzig’s sporting director – turned coach for the 2018/19 season – Ralf Rangnick has enjoyed an eventful journey through management, with the Bundesliga as his playground. In an interview with The Coaches’ Voice, the German discussed his football philosophy and how it is being used to devastating effect in Leipzig.
“There were no books. No exercises. We didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe the kind of things that were happening on the pitch,” Rangnick recalled of his early coaching days. “But we did know that this was the future. And we had to figure it out.”
While former Mainz and Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp is seen as the modern pioneer of the high counter-pressing style, Rangnick was one of its earliest advocates in the Bundesliga, many years before the current Liverpool boss had burst onto the scene.
Watch: Rangnick injured himself in Leipzig's Bundesliga promotion party!
The 60-year-old has been coaching for around half of his life – taking charge of established clubs such as VfB Stuttgart, Hannover and Schalke – and yet his most memorable successes have come more recently, with new kids on the block Hoffenheim and Leipzig. After taking the helm at TSG in 2006, Rangnick guided the club from the third tier to the Bundesliga with back-to-back promotions. And in their debut top-flight campaign of 2008/09, they even topped the table at Christmas before finishing seventh.
Having brought Leipzig up from Bundesliga 2 in 2015/16, Rangnick stepped aside to become sporting director for the club’s maiden Bundesliga campaign under Ralph Hasenhüttl, which resulted in a stunning second place behind record champions Bayern Munich and a historic first qualification for the UEFA Champions League.
He returned to coaching this season, keeping the hot seat warm for Julian Nagelsmann as he prepares to switch from Hoffenheim to Leipzig this summer. Unsurprisingly, Rangnick has kept a steady hand on the tiller, guiding his charges to third place and another Champions League qualification. Interestingly, the wheels for his modern achievements were set in motion on a fateful night 36 years ago.
“I was player-manager at sixth division FC Viktoria Backnang,” he explained. “We weren’t very good, but we were extremely lucky – on a cold February day in 1983, we chanced upon a genius.
“Dynamo Kiev, the team of legendary coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, were staying in a nearby training centre and needed easy opposition for a friendly. A few minutes in, when the ball had gone out for a throw-in, I had to stop and count their players. Did they have 13 or 14 men on the pitch?
“I had played against top teams before – we always lost against them, of course – but they had at least given you the occasional moment of breathing space. Kiev were the first team I had ever come up against who systematically pressed the ball.
“That was my football epiphany. I understood that there was a different way of playing.”
Since then, Rangnick has become one of the brightest tactical minds in German football, adapting seamlessly to the ever-changing world of modern football but always coming back to that vital lesson from Kiev. The 60-year-old says that while clubs now react more quickly to tactical shifts in the game as a whole, it is the way in which they instil their preferred philosophy that has progressed massively over the course of his 40 years in the sport.
“If you want to increase the speed of your game, you have to develop quicker minds rather than quicker feet,” he said. “At RB, we work on increasing the memory space and the processing pace. We put players into the Soccerbot, for example – a machine that simulates previous games and allows players to relive key moments of matches.
“It’s PlayStation football, but with your feet. The players enjoy it so much we have a hard time getting some of them to stop.”
While the sporting director role forces Rangnick to take a step back and consider the bigger picture, he has never lost sight of the fact that man management is at the heart of any coaching position. Leipzig's success this term proves that he has still got what it takes to communicate effectively with his players, even if he doesn't share of all of their tastes…
“I’m 60 now, and I’m thankful that I have my own office – mostly to escape the music they play in the dressing room before games! But musical tastes aside, I have a strong connection with my players. Once you stop understanding them, their fears and aspirations, you have to stop managing.”
Rangnick is also perfectly aware that while hours of training, thought and tactical analysis go into preparing each and every game, it is often the emotional X-factor that can make the difference in an elite dressing room, and encourage the players to go that extra mile for their team.
“Tactics, fitness and rules are all hugely important, but they’re only a means to an end. My job – the job – is to improve players. Players follow you as a manager if they feel that you make them better. That’s the greatest, most sincere motivation there is.”
With Leipzig reaching the Champions League for the second time in three Bundesliga seasons, it is clear that Rangnick has found the words to ensure that his men go above and beyond – and with renowned man manager Nagelsmann due to pitch up in the summer, the future in Saxony is looking very bright indeed.
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