Ralf Rangnick remembers the advice he once gave Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian billionaire and co-founder of Red Bull, the energy drinks company: “I said: ‘Listen, I’d change almost everything.’” 

It was the summer of 2012 and Mr Rangnick, a renowned football coach, had a year earlier steered German team Schalke 04 to the semi-finals of the Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club competition. Other career achievements include leading a village side, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, up through German football’s lower divisions into the Bundesliga, the country’s top league.

This work drew the attention of Mr Mateschitz who, partly as a marketing ploy for his drinks empire, had acquired sports franchises to bear the company’s logo. The businessman was searching for a “sporting director” — an executive to run its football teams, including Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and RB Leipzig in Germany.

Mr Rangnick proposed a revolution. Jettison established but ageing footballers. Hire younger, if unproven, players. Scrap tried-and-tested defensive football. Adopt a risky, attacking game.

These changes would better align with the company’s slogan, “Red Bull gives you wings” — an appeal to younger, thrill-seeking consumers. “This is an aggressive, proactive kind of football, which is never boring,” says Mr Rangnick. “A perfect fit to the brand.”

Aged 62, he now admits this business-oriented pitch was something of a ruse, a way of aligning Mr Mateschitz’s profit motives with a desire to implement his then radical football strategies.

“For me, it was not about selling more cans for Red Bull,” says Mr Rangnick. “For me, it was being as successful as we can be in the shortest possible time.”

Over an eight-year tenure at Red Bull, which also owns clubs in the US and Brazil, Mr Rangnick achieved unprecedented success. Leipzig, founded just 11 years ago, leapt through German football’s divisions and reached the Champions League semi-finals last season. Salzburg has won seven successive Austrian league titles. 

RB Leipzig's Nordi Mukiele faces a challenge from Kylian Mbappé of Paris Saint-Germain during this year's Champions League semi-final in Lisbon
RB Leipzig’s Nordi Mukiele faces a challenge from Kylian Mbappé of Paris Saint-Germain during this year’s Champions League semi-final in Lisbon © David Ramos/Getty

Inspired by visionary former managers such as AC Milan’s Arrigo Sacchi and Dynamo Kyiv’s Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Mr Rangnick has pioneered a style of play based around gegenpressing (furiously chasing opponents soon after losing the ball) and “zonal marking” (where players cover discrete areas of the pitch, rather than lining up “man-to-man” against their rivals). 

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In 1998, he appeared on German television espousing the merits of a four-man defence over the five-man back line preferred by most of the country’s sides. This contrarian stance earned him the moniker “Professor”. The term was not meant as a compliment. Instead, he was being dismissed as a book-smart crank who had achieved little as a player and, at the time, was merely the head coach of second division side SSV Ulm 1846. 

“In Germany, we are not very open-minded to new things . . . not only in sport, also in other areas of life,” he says. “I think we are the country with the highest number of insurance [policies], which says something about the mentality of [the] people.” 

Then the German national team lost all its matches in the 2000 European Championship. This humiliating failure led to a nationwide investment in youth coaching and a tactical rethink across its clubs. Suddenly, Mr Rangnick’s ideas were in vogue. Credited as a founding father of modern German football, he influenced a new generation of like-minded coaches, such as Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann.

Still, his work at Red Bull has been controversial, particularly in Germany, where most teams adhere to a “50+1” ownership rule that ensures individual club members hold the majority of voting rights, rather than have a single rich owner — the model in other European countries. RB Leipzig’s ownership structure puts Red Bull executives in effective control of the club. Rival supporters argue money has fuelled its rise rather than Mr Rangnick’s smart tactics. Such criticisms are based on “fear”, he retorts, as fans of other clubs are “afraid that we could jeopardise . . . the place of their own teams”.

While Mr Rangnick admits that Red Bull provided “start-up capital” to build its teams, he adds “we were not signing finished product players . . . we always signed players who at the time most people would have said: ‘Who is this?’”

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Those developed within Red Bull’s stable would be sold at a healthy profit and go on to become some of the sport’s premier talents. These players include Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland and Chelsea’s Timo Werner. “We created market values of players of more than a billion euros,” says Mr Rangnick.

What many casual observers fail to fully grasp is the extent to which elite football, he argues, has become a game of competing tactical systems as much as a contest between individual players.

Take, for example, France’s Olympique Lyonnais, which in last season’s Champions League knocked out England’s Manchester City, one of the most expensively-assembled teams in history. “I very much doubt that a single Lyon player would have had a chance to be in the starting 11 of [manager] Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City,” says Mr Rangnick.

Having left Red Bull this summer, Mr Rangnick is back on the job market. This year he was approached to take a coaching role at Italy’s AC Milan, tasked with reviving a team that has not qualified for the Champions League for six seasons. 

That move fell apart as Mr Rangnick was caught in a power battle inside the club. Milan’s owners, US hedge fund Elliott Management, and the club’s chief executive Ivan Gazidis, wanted him to adopt a youth-oriented transfer policy and steadily build the team over time. That contrasted with the desires of sporting director Paolo Maldini, a legendary former player popular with AC Milan’s fans, who wants to acquire existing superstars to mount a speedy return to the top of the game. 

For Mr Rangnick, it was clear which philosophy was in the ascendant after veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was signed in January (a player who subsequently inspired a sharp uptick in results). “It’s not about me not liking Ibrahimovic,” he says. “Why shouldn’t I? At the age of 38, he’s still in fantastic shape. He can still be decisive for winning games. But the question is, which pathway do you want to go? What is Milan? . . . For me, the signing of Ibrahimovic at the time was a contradiction in itself . . . because of the way that [the owners said] they wanted to go.”

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Having spent time as a student at the University of Sussex, Mr Rangnick is fluent in English and has regularly been linked to jobs in the English Premier League. In 2016, he was interviewed for the post of England manager, which eventually went to Sam Allardyce. He is open to offers outside his native Germany, but adds: “It’s not about the country. It’s about the challenge.”

Crucial to success, he says, is the ability to implement his style of leadership, where the means matter as much as the ends. “I always saw myself as a service provider, for my players, for my employees, to get better, to make them better,” says Mr Rangnick. “And then, in the end, you have a win-win situation.”

Three Questions for Ralf Rangnick

Who is your leadership hero?

Nelson Mandela. He had every reason to be divisive, but on the contrary, he unified. Behind those prison walls, Mandela found inspiration from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” And this is also my motto in life.

If you were not a coach, what would you be?

A teacher. I studied at university to become a teacher, specialising in the English language, literature and sports. When I was 22, I enjoyed a very exciting academic year in England. It was a life-enriching experience in many ways and brought me close to English football, its culture and its people.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

I remember six months before our first child, Kevin, was born. My wife and I visited a parental preparation course where they told us that however you raise your child, do it with “love, consequence and conviction”. I try to remain true to these principles in my leadership.

Via Financial Times