Ralf Rangnick, and the value of practice

There are, arguably, only two lines you need to read from Michael Cox's recent column on Ralf Rangnick's time at Manchester United.

"Ultimately, a huge red flag was that, in the decade before Manchester United appointed Rangnick, he had been appointed as a manager twice. The people who appointed him were Ralf Rangnick and Ralf Rangnick."

The pair of sentences reflect how little sense has been in the air around Old Trafford this last seven months. The only role that Rangnick has ended up playing was interim manager, the role he wasn't well-qualified for, and the role he was well-qualified for, a consultant at around director of football-level, is one he now won't do.

This strange set of circumstances has an equally strange, and equally interesting, accompaniment. In November last year, just before taking on his job at United, an interview with Rangnick was published on Red Bull's Red Bulletin website. His observations about club management there contrast sharply with some details of his time in Manchester, as found in Laurie Whitwell's report for The Athletic.

For example, Rangnick's opening line when asked about they key qualities a successful coach needs to have? "Team insight, interpersonal skills and decision-making authority". Compare with the following passage from The Athletic:

"[Rangnick] did not anticipate the dressing room problems he encountered, nor how his interim status would make him feel more hesitant to push through his own vision. Instead, his instinct was to try to accommodate players rather than cause further ructions; something, on reflection, he is understood to regret."

Later in his answer Rangnick says: "It’s not enough to merely delegate tasks to these experts [staff in a coach's wider team]. You are expected to engage in dialogue with them." In contrast, the opening section of Whitwell's article talks about how Rangnick's use of a former colleague still based in Russia created communication and decision-making problems.

And, finally, when he is later asked in the Red Bulletin interview about what a club will need to do in the future to ensure success, his answer includes the sentence "Success hinges on three Cs: concept, competence, and capital." Many assumed that, at the very least, the German credited with huge influence on that nation's tactical outlook would bring that first C, concept. And yet, from Whitwell's article again, "Rangnick began going against his own ideas to find buy-in."

In the former interim manager's defence, the squad he inherited hardly helped. Rangnick's very next sentence in the Red Bulletin interview after his 'three Cs' could almost be aimed directly at the United hierarchy: "Capital is often readily available, but in most cases the project fails due to a lack of competence on the part of the individuals involved and a lack of concept."

But still. Even in a short interview, Rangnick has the answers for how a good manager should manage. Yet it appears he was some way off being able to put that into practice though.

I write all this not to figuratively kick a man while he's down, but to highlight just how difficult these jobs are. There is clearly a lot of respect for Rangnick's body of work within the game. He appears, from the outside, to be a smart man about football. And yet that still doesn't necessarily translate to being a top-level football manager.

One of the striking things about both Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp are the ways they can simply explain tactical concepts, the extent of their collaboration, and the very open emotion they display. Klopp's hugs are renowned. Guardiola's dancing is a "big mood" (especially around 35 seconds).

Are they elite tacticians or are they elite people managers? They're both.

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The eternal problem with getting good at practising what you preach is the 'practise' part. There may well be a world where Ralf Rangnick is a great head coach, but it's probably a world where he doesn't have to step down, through chronic fatigue syndrome, as Schalke manager in 2011 and then spend the next decade in sporting director-type roles.

This is a problem not just affecting Rangnick, but may well affect the ever-growing number of people looking to get involved in football analytics roles.

While not easy, it's relatively straightforward to get to know FBref, to learn some R or Python, to check out Friends of Tracking YouTube videos. It's slightly harder to get a feel for the types of tasks that would need doing in a professional job; even harder to get a feel for how to act when they inevitably go wrong/get sidelined. (The insights from an array of industry professionals in Get Goalside's 100th edition may help though).

The particular dynamics of this strange little space we find ourselves in also make things awkward. Data roles are new, so there aren't that many people with lots of experience to give; many who do might feel too precarious in their job security to give away inside details. Some insight can be gleaned from conferences (the club-led questions at the Stats Perform Pro Forum are a good hint at the 'real world'), but these are generally special projects, not day-to-day work. And then there's the question about how much attention that day-to-day work actually gets anyway.

Every now and then, someone on Twitter will write a piece of advice for the people who ask them how to get into these types of jobs. One of the central hooks is usually 'do public work', although examples of what kind of public work are rarer (probably for reasons touched on above).

An article about GPS data in sport I saw earlier today had a sub-heading which read: "Research will not yield a good answer until you ask a good question". I suspect that the same applies to pro-analytics-hopefuls too.

For those hopefuls, working out good, realistic scenarios might be more useful development than extra hours spent reading up on theory; for those in jobs, putting out good, realistic scenarios might be the most helpful advice you can give.

Practice makes perfect.