Manchester United’s new interim manager only took on his role in Russia in July, but faced heavy criticism from both fans and members of the media
If you had read the Russian press – and especially Russian social networks – in recent days, then you would have come away with the impression that Ralf Rangnick’s work at Lokomotiv Moscow was hugely unpopular.
Most journalists and fans are outraged by the apparent damage the German tactician did to the club, only for him to then suddenly leave so as to take the interim manager’s job at Manchester United.
As described by Sergey Kolesnikov of Sportbox.ru, some claim that Rangnick’s tenure has been “the biggest fraud in Russian football history”.
Dmitry Selyuk, the provocative agent best known for representing Yaya Toure, compared Rangnick to Ostap Bender, the most famous fictional crook in Russian literature.
Countless jokes and memes have been spread far and wide, leaving Lokomotiv to be laughed at mercilessly by rival supporters.
Rangnick is being blamed for dismantling a decent team that was fairly functional last season, finishing third so as to qualify for Europa League, while also winning the Russian Cup.
But following a major summer overhaul, they are now 11 points behind leaders Zenit after just 16 matches, having won just two of their last nine fixtures. On Monday, they were soundly thrashed 3-1 by lowly Arsenal Tula.
Rangnick’s first unpopular decision after his appointment in July was selling midfield stalwart Grzegorz Krychowiak against the player’s wishes. The Poland international was bought by Lokomotiv’s direct rivals Krasnodar for just €2.5 million (£2.1m/$2.8m) in early August, and is enjoying a strong season, with four goals to his name so far.
The list of summer signings, meanwhile, included French midfielder Alexis Beka Beka from Ligue 2 outfit Caen and Dutch winger Gyrano Kerk from Utrecht, both of whom cost €6m (£5m/$7m) each.
Lokomotiv also paid Moscow rivals CSKA hefty sums for unproven midfielders Konstantin Maradishvili and Nair Tiknizyan, as pundits commented that Rangnick’s strategy in the transfer market was both needlessly expensive and risky.
It was not just with the playing staff where Rangnick made unpopular decisions, either.
Marko Nikolic was a popular coach with Lokomotiv followers, and generally considered a very hard working and honest manager. His future, though, was in doubt from the moment Rangnick arrived, as his defensive style and lack of high pressing was not suitable for the new concepts that were being introduced.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Serbian left by mutual consent in early October. He was replaced by Markus Gisdol, who is largely seen by the Russian media as being Rangnick’s puppet.
Former Lokomotiv president Nikolay Naumov criticised the appointment, saying: “He is not a coach, but rather a secretary. Rangnick doesn’t need someone like [Jose] Mourinho or [Roberto] Mancini, but rather a man who will follow his instructions.
“They came to the club with just one goal – to turn Lokomotiv into a business of buying and selling players. Results aren’t important for them, and they need an anonymous coach who was willing to take a good salary and do what they say.
Now, with Rangnick’s departure to United confirmed, it was widely assumed that the whole system he brought in would fall apart, leaving Lokomotiv in ruins.
Such a view, though, seems like it will be proven incorrect, for no more reason than Rangnick’s role and his entire project in Moscow has been totally misunderstood.
For starters, despite the fact that he will be in the Old Trafford dugout on Sunday when Crystal Palace take on United, Rangnick has not ‘left’ Lokomotiv – simply because he never had an official job within the club in the first place.
Described upon his appointment as the club’s manager of sports and development, he was not actually on the Lokomotiv payroll, and his name never appeared on the official club website. Instead, a contract was signed with his agency, Rangnick Kornetka Consulting, which basically made him a freelance advisor.
“The contract is still intact, and the project is supposed to go on,” Ivan Zhidkov, chief editor of the Sport Den Za Dnem newspaper, tells GOAL. “Lars Kornetka, Rangnick’s right-hand man, will continue to work with Lokomotiv on a daily basis, and Rangnick himself is supposed to have the last word on the most important issues.
“Rangnick took his work at Lokomotiv extremely seriously. He brought an entire team of scouting specialists, who now work for a club that didn’t have a proper scouting department at all before his arrival.
“There are new standards as far as medical staff and dietitians are concerned. The plan is to make the club much more professional and modern.”
Rangnick’s appointment was always done with a long-term view, and the transfer market strategy, for example, is not – as Naumov claimed – to be a selling club, but rather to make the club more efficient while excelling on the pitch.
“According to Rangnick’s philosophy, only ambitious young players should be signed, and they shouldn’t be over the age of 25,” Zhidkov explains. “Investments should be made in those who want to grow, rather than in veterans whose motivation could be wrong for the project.”
Rangnick made significant efforts to explain the project during his time in Russia. He held a special press conference in the weeks before the news broke of United’s interest in him, but instead of discussing the strategy and the future, journalists kept asking the German about Nikolic and Krychowiak, focusing on the past.
He also invited leaders of fan movements for a friendly chat at a restaurant in October, but it remains unclear whether they were convinced by his methods.
“It is very important to understand that it is a long term project, led by top specialists. It would be ridiculous to judge it based on immediate results, but people don’t want to understand that,” Zhidkov continues. “Most of the journalism in Russia is driven by pure emotion. Most of the analysis is very shallow.
“It is already possible to see that Beka Beka, for example, is making significant progress, and at the age of 20 he is a very promising footballer. These things take time.”
Rangnick is, therefore, completely misunderstood in Russia, though it must be said that the very vague description of his role has not helped his cause.
His work at Lokomotiv has only just started, and it was not supposed to end after just four months when Manchester United came calling. As such, success or failure should not be measured quite so soon.
Russian fans and journalists are only capable of looking at immediate impressions, though, and former Lokomotiv general director Ilya Gerkus claimed that, “there are three matches left in 2021. If the Germans achieve good results, they will continue. If they don’t, they won’t.”
Rangnick is almost certain to face the same problem in England, too. Despite only being the interim manager at United, he will inevitably be judged by what happens on the field, even if the true purpose for his appointment does not begin until the summer.
That said, his role as a consultant during the next two seasons is extremely vague – even more so than at Lokomotiv – and thus fans and journalists alike are extremely unlikely to be patient with him and trust his process if results under the coach he helps to appoint do not improve.
And so while Rangnick is definitely not guilty of being “the biggest fraud in Russian football history”, and nor is he a crook, there are lessons in what he has done at Lokomotiv that Manchester United fans would do well to learn from in the coming weeks, months and years.