Monday, January 17, 2022

The TV interview that put Ralf Rangnick on the path to Manchester United

It was on the last Saturday before Christmas back in 1998 that a late-night TV interview is said to have changed the course of German football and the modern game with it. It most certainly changed the course of Ralf Rangnick’s career, propelling him on the long road that would eventually lead to Old Trafford.

Conducting the interview was Michael Steinbrecher, a presenter on the late-night ZDF Sportstudio, which first aired in 1963 to coincide with the opening day of the inaugural Bundesliga season. But during his 21 years co-hosting the programme, the intention was to be more than a mere highlights show.

“The idea was to show a lot of sports obviously but to also have guests – athletes, coaches – and have quite long conversations with them about sports and about their life,” Steinbrecher tells The Independent. “There was more variety, more opportunity to talk with people, to demonstrate something in the studio with an audience.”

Steinbrecher had once been a talented player himself, turning out for Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach’s youth teams and playing in German football’s third division. From that experience, he knew that the standard of football discourse and analysis on television could be drastically improved.

“In Germany, talking about football at the end of the ‘90s, it was men talking about motivation, about the form of specific players, about how aggressive they played, how good they were at heading but we never talked in detail about football tactics. I didn’t really understand that. I knew from my coaches that it was important to have an idea.”

Ideas were in short supply, though. New ones, especially. There was a tactical orthodoxy within German football based strictly upon a five-man defence with wing-backs and a sweeper, a system that had delivered the World Cup and European Championship since the turn of the decade as well as major European honours at club level.

Yet Rangnick stood in opposition to this tradition. Then an up-and-coming 40-year-old coach, he was in charge of the unfashionable SSV Ulm 1846 yet sat top of 2. Bundesliga. Despite starting the campaign among the favourites for relegation, Ulm had lost only one of their opening 18 games while playing with a back four rather than a libero and marking zonally rather than man-to-man.

“I did some research, talked with some people at Ulm, and I and the team realised that Ralf Rangnick had another idea of football than the coaches we knew,” says Steinbrecher. “We thought, why not present a coach from the second league with a new idea? Why not talk about football tactics in a very popular sports programme?”

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Rangnick accepted that invitation and soon found himself stood in front of a live studio audience with a tactics board behind him. Steinbrecher introduced him first, then asked him to explain how a back four works. “I only noticed afterwards that what Ralf explained in that show and how he did it, there was some kind of revolution.”

Over the next few minutes, Rangnick explained his preference for a back four and zonal marking but within the context of what he called ‘extremely pronounced pressing’ while moving magnetic markers around a tactics board. “We want to try to always attack and outnumber the opposing ball owner with at least one man, and it is simply important that the players also have a basic structure where they know that every player really has his back covered,” he said, neatly summing up his philosophy.

It was not the type of thing normally considered compelling Saturday night viewing. “People said before we started: ‘Do you think it’s a good idea?’,” Steinbrecher admits. But Rangnick articulated his vision of a modern pressing system with such clarity, once he had moved the last marker, the studio audience broke into a round of applause even though it was not yet the end of the segment.

The mini-lecture had made a major impression, but it was not as warmly received outside the ZDF studios. When asked by Steinbrecher why other teams do not play such a style, Rangnick rejected the claim that his fellow coaches simply do not have the time to train this way of playing. “I think we have a problem in Germany and that is why it may take a little longer to convey this kind of football to a team, as many players have been trained in a completely different way,” he said.

There was a near immediate backlash from those representing the more conservative elements of German football, including the then-Bundestrainer himself Erich Ribbeck. “I’m disappointed about the overblown discussion about tactical systems, like a colleague of mine pedalling banalities on ZDF Sportstudio as if the coaches in the Bundesliga were all total idiots,” said the oldest-ever appointee to the national team job.

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One of Germany’s most iconic football figures and, more pertinently, the man credited with inventing the modern sweeper role agreed with Ribbeck. “All this talk about the system is nonsense,” said Franz Beckenbauer, as recounted in Raphal Honigstein’s Das Reboot. “Other players can do more with the ball, our players cannot. Four at the back with zonal marking or a sweeper, it doesn’t matter. Four at the back can be fatal.”

Rangnick did not expect such a reaction at the time. Nor did Steinbrecher. “I think we were both surprised,” he says but in hindsight, he can see it was a moment where sensitive fault lines within German football began to fracture. “I think what made this TV experience of Ralf Rangnick special was maybe a clash of football cultures, the old way of thinking about football and the new way.”

Rangnick’s lack of pedigree put noses out of joint, in particular. As a player, he had not reached a higher level than the presenter interviewing him, yet he supposedly had the answers to German football’s burgeoning identity crisis. “People said he can’t stand there and talk like this,” says Steinbrecher. “I think they meant: ‘I don’t want this kind of football to be my football’.

“You win games with your attitude, your fighting spirit and not with tactics: that was the conservative way of thinking about football. That’s true and it’s still true. That’s what Roy Keane tells you in every TV show I watch and he’s right! You need personalities on the pitch. But you also need an idea of how to play football, you need a system, you need a philosophy for your club.”

Rangnick suddenly had a greater profile though not an entirely positive one. He became known as ‘The Professor’, a reputation which undermined his work in the Bundesliga after being appointed by Stuttgart, and one which perhaps had more to do with his suit jacket and rimless glasses rather than the substance of his ideas.

“It was not important for me how he was dressed or anything like that because I wanted to talk about football and the way he did it was very convincing,” says Steinbrecher. “That was the only way that counted. What makes an image of a person is a different kind of question.

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“His success at popular clubs like Schalke 04 was because it is a very emotional club and I think the way the supporters reacted to him showed that he reached their hearts. People who want to give him that image of a professor, I think they don’t see the whole person. I think that’s over, it has been over for a long time.”

Steinbrecher is right. Rangnick has shed that tag and it is because, despite the initial backlash, he eventually won the argument. “The interview is not spectacular if you watch it today,” Steinbrecher says. “In Germany today, everybody talks about football in a modern way, with modern graphics, with modern data but in these times people said you can’t talk about football and stand at a tactics board.”

Rangnick once described the Sportstudio interview as “a mistake”, claiming it led to him being dismissed by many in German football as a ‘theorist’, though he did not require any persuasion or convincing to return to the programme in 2005, a few months after guiding Schalke to a Bundesliga runners-up finish. He has since appeared another 11 times, most recently during the summer of last year.

Steinbrecher stepped down from co-hosting Sportstudio in 2013. He now presents a weekly talk show Nachtcafé while also lecturing in journalism. He has spoken to Rangnick about the interview over the years since and suggests that any regrets have long subsided. “I think we wouldn’t do things differently because we did something that today is very common and very natural. Talking about football couldn’t be wrong.

“You can’t stop innovation by yelling loudly,” he adds, pointing out that those influential figures within German football who questioned Rangnick have largely been replaced by Rangnick disciples. “For other coaches it was an inspiration and they are the ones that embraced change, who embraced that modern way of football. Who rules modern football today? That’s why we’re talking about him now.”

Ralf Rangnick’s ZDF Sportstudio interview: the transcript

MS: Ralf Rangnick, we’ve been talking about back four and zonal defence for years, and you get the feeling that there is almost awe when you talk about this system. Now we have a tactics board. There are a lot of people at home who are watching us who say we still don’t really understand what it’s about. Can you briefly describe it?

RR: Well, first of all on the subject of a back four. The back four is really just a means to an end for us, because what we actually want to play is extremely pronounced pressing. We want to try to always attack and outnumber the opposing ball owner with at least one man, and it is simply important that the players also have a basic structure where they know that every player really has his back covered. Another myth that still exists in Germany is that a back four plays without a libero. We don’t play without a libero. It’s just the case with us, we will maybe see it after a situation has played out, that our two central defenders generate this libero depending on the situation, depending on which side the opposing attack comes from, sometimes one and sometimes the other central defender is our man who secures the other.

MS: The other team has the ball in this situation. What happens?

RR: First of all, we try to lure the opponent out a bit. That means we don’t want to give everything away from the start. If, for example, this opposing player has the ball, then, what we call the near-the-ball striker, here No 11, is required to move towards the ball. At the same time, the No 8, regardless of whether they might have covered this man with the No 2 at first, also pushes towards the ball owner. In other words, we already have a situation here where two men are trying to catch the ball owner and attack. The No10 pushes over towards the ball side, has the task of creating a triangle here, closing the pass path here. [The marker representing the ball falls off the board] Oops …

MS: Now the ball is out of play!

RR: The ball is out of play.

MS: That should not happen, I imagine…

RR: That should not happen. Well, okay… then I think there’s a very important point: let’s assume we have one of the opposing strikers here. That one is covered by the No 3 at the moment before the play begins. The No 3 pushes forward, has to close the space behind the No 8, that is, make sure that he has really closed the space here behind him as well. So now comes the back-four phenomenon, which I just mentioned. This striker here is also covered by the central defender who is close to the ball. In this situation he is the marker of No 9. No 4 becomes a free man, libero, secures the space here, depending on how fast he is, of course it depends on how much backing and how much depth positioning he needs, remains a free man here. The other striker is covered by the advancing full-back; that’s the guy here. And the No 6, as we call them our vacuum cleaner or windshield wiper, also pushes towards the ball side. And now another phenomenon: If we want to generate a numerical advantage here, we have to be outnumbered somewhere else on the pitch. These two players also push over towards the ball. The No 9, depending on the situation, may already be anticipating a possible back pass. In any case they also close the space or spaces here. And the No 7 moves here, depending on where the opposing players are now, again in the middle. So you see, when the situation reaches its conclusion, we actually don’t have a player of our own in the half of the pitch where the ball isn’t.

[Applause from the audience]

MS: I’ve just looked around, the audience is taking it in. I will now try to sum it up in my words: So that means, you orientate yourself on the ball. You try to generate a numerical advantage near the ball. You try to take time and space from your opponent on the ball. And you do not mark with an opponent or assignment-oriented approach, but with a risk-oriented approach, which means this the player is not so interesting, but you always mark with a ball-oriented approach, right?

RR: Correct.

MS: If it can be explained relatively easily here, why do other teams in Germany and the national team not play this system?

RR: Well, it is always said that in Germany, especially in professional football, you have too little time. But of course, I don’t see any differences to other countries. I think the pressure on coaches in Italy and in Holland is just as great as here. We in Ulm, too, if you say that we have an oasis in Ulm, if we were currently 16th or 17th, where we were all expected, then of course the coach Rangnick would also be in the discussion. That’s not a question at all. I think we have the problem in Germany, and that is why it may take a little longer in Germany to convey this kind of football to a team, as many players have been trained in a completely different way. That is, in Germany it is actually primarily about being on an opposing player, having him in 1-on-1 marking. And we have just seen that it can really happen here, and it happens more often, that we are initially marking a player and this one deliberately moves away from the man in order to really close the space near the ball.

Translation by Alex Pattle


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