Who is Ralf Rangnick: The brains behind RB Leipzig's remarkable rise
The knowledge and expertise of a man who brought the likes of Emil Forsberg, Naby Keita and Timo Werner all to the same club, while bringing that same club from the lower leagues of German football to the UEFA Champions League in no time at all, is surely one of the most sought after in football.
Well, there is such a man, and his name is Ralf Rangnick. And he gave Leipzig fans the perfect Christmas present last year, to cap off what has been a dream start to life in the elite of football in the Bundesliga and Europe.
“I’m happy that my future lies with this great club, which has undergone fantastic development and which — in my opinion — still has a long way to go,” said Ralf Rangnick after news he had signed a two-year contract extension as the club’s sporting director through to 2021 filtered through the good cheer from the club’s Christmas party last year.
“He’s the sporting motor of our club and so is fundamental to our future development,” added RBL’s CEO Oliver Mintzlaf, who — along with Rangnick - is one of the wise men pushing the club onwards and upwards with all the energy packed into one of the cans sold worldwide by Leipzig’s multi-billionaire owner, Red Bull mogul Dietrich Mateschitz.
“This is a very positive sign for our association, especially in terms of continuity, sustainable structures and development.”
Positive for Leipzig but negative for everyone else both domestically and Europe-wide given the central role Rangnick has played in the club’s rise from coming into existence in 2009 to Bundesliga podium challengers and UEFA Champions League participants in eight insolently short years.
Lessons from 'The Professor'
Short yes, but what seems far-fetched to most is certainly not for Rangnick. There is little doubt this is what he had in mind when he joined the Red Bull team, as sporting director of both Leipzig and their sister club across the Austrian border in Salzburg, in June 2012.
His academic demeanour earned him the nickname ‘The Professor’ from German media when — as the little-known boss of Bundesliga 2 side Ulm in 1998 — he appeared on national TV to explain what even the most sheltered football fan would now recognise as ‘pressing’. But don’t be fooled, Rangnick is ready to take a risk with his reputation.
Leipzig, who were then in the fourth-tier of German football, were not even the first club to tempt Rangnick with a move that raised more than a few eyebrows.
Watch: Leipzig's Bundesliga promotion party
He had already guided Schalke to a runners-up finish in the 2004/05 Bundesliga and tasted the UEFA Champions League when he was lured to then third-tier Hoffenheim in 2006 with the chance to write himself into the club’s legend. He left five years later with that legacy safe, and having laid the foundations for the team that Julian Nagelsmann — a Rangnick disciple — took to fourth place last term.
Rangnick's three K's
The gamble — carefully calculated in that acutely sharp Rangnick mind — has of course paid off handsomely in Leipzig, where his policy of the three K’s — Kapital, Konzept and Kompetenz — money, concept and competence have dovetailed dreamily.
“If those three things come together, then you can be successful. If you only have one or two of them, it’s more difficult,” he told Deutsche Welle before taking a justified sideswipe at those who claim the club’s success has been bought by Mateschitz’s millions.
“Our club is always reduced to the financial muscle of its owner. There are lots of clubs in the Bundesliga like that. Put it this way, the Bundesliga table doesn’t correlate with clubs’ budgets. If it did, the table would look very different.”
Not even Rangnick denies the fact Mateschitz’s deep pockets have gone a good way to fuelling Leipzig’s climb — “It helps when you don’t have to count every euro,” he himself admitted — and the club did spark a furore in 2014 when they came in eighth among the transfer market’s biggest spenders in a chart covering the top two divisions in Germany.
Sticking to principles
But while Leipzig have spent money, they have done so wisely, and sticking zealously to the policy Rangnick already used to good effect at Hoffenheim of signing promising young players. As such, the investments in Forsberg, Willi Orban, Yussuf Poulsen and Werner would get the approval of even the most demanding hedge fund manager, who would be gleefully applauding the return on Keita when he moves to Liverpool next summer.
Rangnick is behind those moves, convincing players such as Orban, who had the pick of Germany’s top clubs and many beyond the Bundesliga when he left Kaiserslautern in 2015, Leipzig was the place to be.
“I told him I was taking over myself and what will happen and can happen with us,” Rangnick, who — with the club unsuccessfully seeking a full-time coach — took the reins ahead of the 2015/16 promotion season. After a night’s sleep on it, Orban called: “Herr Rangnick, I’m coming to you.”
That the centre-back’s arrival marked the start of his development into one of Germany’s most promising defenders will be of no surprise to Rangnick, who — given the blank sheet that Leipzig was in 2012 — was able to lay out the blueprint for the kind of club and player he wanted.
Style of play
“We truly believe in our systems. The players we have are willing to learn our style of play. We asked ourselves, ‘What style do we want to play?’ After that we scouted, and signed the players who fulfilled our requirements,” said the former Stuttgart and Hannover boss.
“The interesting thing is that they all came here with the idea of wanting to develop.”
Rangnick and, in their two seasons in the Bundesliga, Hasenhüttl, have played a direct part in that on the training pitch where ‘The Professor’s’ innovative methods have been key to producing one of the Bundesliga’s most exciting attacking units.
Watch: Leipzig's top 10 counter-attacking goals
“The ticking can be irritating for them at first, but we’ve noticed that this kind of training can affect players in just a few weeks,” said Rangnick, explaining the construction of a custom-made clock that the players can hear when playing small-sided games in training: eight seconds to win the ball back, ten seconds to have a shot on goal. “They adjust their style of play and it becomes an instinct. They look to play forward more quickly.”
Not finished yet
A frightening thought for the other 31 countries at next summer’s World Cup is that Germany might have been even better under Rangnick, the man Jürgen Klinsmann initially wanted as his assistant coach only to be turned down and have to opt instead for Joachim Löw.
Instead, the game of ‘what might be…’ will be played out on the domestic and continental stage, and it could be just as daunting a prospect for those who will face Leipzig in the future.
Watch: Leipzig ready for Round 2
“I have the picture of what will happen on that day here in Leipzig already in my head,” said Rangnick as he embarked on that 2015/16 campaign that would end with an historic maiden berth in the Bundesliga.
Given how that vision became reality, and how things have progressed since, Leipzig fans can start dreaming happily about what their understated, visionary, street-smart sporting director has in mind now. That really will be like all their Christmases coming at once.