History tells us German coaches aren’t usually a good fit for Italian clubs. Rudi Voller starred for Roma as a player between 1987 and 1992, but managed them for less than a month in 2004, winning just one of his six games in charge. He remains the only German to have ever coached in Serie A. Despite that, Milan are keen to rewrite history with Ralf Rangnick. And for good reason, too.
For a start, Rangnick is a true student of the game. The 61-year-old had no distinguished playing career to speak of, failing to venture beyond amateur level, and instead spent his younger days looking up to the likes of Arrigo Sacchi and Zdenek Zeman. Such was his admiration for Zeman, from his time coaching Foggia in the early 1990s, that he called the Czech his ‘spiritual brother’.
His most important contribution to German football arguably came away from a football pitch. At a time when most clubs in the country were still adopting back threes and sweepers, Rangnick – then the coach of second-tier side Ulm – appeared on state television in December 1998 with his now-iconic magnetic tactics board, talking up the use of a four-man defence, zonal marking and high pressing.
He was quickly dismissed by the press as nothing more than a ‘Professor’, of the nutty variety, for his unconventional methods. However, less than two years later, Germany hit rock-bottom as they crashed out of Euro 2000 at the group stage. Those same methods went on to transform German football, with its clubs and national team going on to take over the world.
Rangnick may have proved to be a pioneer, but he didn’t get his big break until 2004, when he was handed the reins at Schalke. He led the Royal Blues to a runners-up finish in the Bundesliga, but was sacked midway through his second season. Struggling to shed his ‘professor’ tag, he made the bold decision of dropping into the third tier to manage then-minnows Hoffenheim.
Together with some unprecedented financial backing, Rangnick guided Hoffenheim to the Bundesliga through back-to-back promotions. Yet he still wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved, although it was through no fault of his own. Hoffenheim’s ascent had been bankrolled by a wealthy businessman – a practice that, to this day, is frowned upon by purveyors of the German game.
A return to Schalke in 2011 yielded his best achievements as a football coach, one of which will surely appeal to Milan fans. He led the Gelsenkirchen side to their first-ever Champions League semi-final after they dismantled holders Inter 7-3 on aggregate. The season ended with a domestic cup success, although chronic exhaustion forced him to take a break from football months later.
For the past eight years, he has overseen the rise and rise of Red Bull’s football operations, helping the drinks giant establish itself as a leading player in the sport through his knowledge and expertise. His work can be best seen at RB Leipzig, who have become a top-three Bundesliga team in just a few seasons. Before coronavirus broke out, they thrashed Tottenham Hotspur to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis considered Rangnick as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal successor in 2018, and reports persist that – after a power grab, resulting in the departure of Zvonimir Boban – he is drawing up plans for the Diavolo’s future alongside the German, who would be given full control of playing and recruitment matters. Not only would that streamline Milan’s boardroom, but it would give them the stability they have long craved.
Rangnick’s track record speaks for itself and Milan should be looking beyond former figures to restore their past glories. The Rossoneri are Italy’s most successful European team. It’s time they started acting like it.
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