Ralf Rangnick’s six-month stint as Manchester United manager is among the most head-scratching episodes in the club’s recent history.
One of the game’s most revered technical directors was named as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s interim successor in late November – despite having done hardly any management in the previous decade – with United stressing how much knowledge the German had to impart.
Rangnick presided over marginal improvement before a major slump after the Champions League exit against Atletico Madrid – two wins from the final nine games of the season including a 4-0 hammering at Brighton widely accepted to be one of the club’s worst results in living memory.
A two-year consultancy role was agreed as part of his arrival, but he will not take that up, leaving many dismissing his era as a waste of time.
Erik ten Hag – Solskjaer’s permanent replacement – was unaware of what role United had in mind for the 63-year-old, who was unimpressive as a manager and is now seemingly not needed for his technical expertise.
So is this parting of the ways a sign of clear vision and progress at a club trying to find its way out of the mess that saw them finish sixth last season – with their worst points total of the Premier League era – or evidence of more muddled thinking at a club that has lost its way?
Rangnick’s parting thoughts
In a way, United didn’t need to hold Rangnick to the six-days-a-month agreement they struck for his involvement beyond the end of the season. They – and everyone else – already knew his thoughts.
Growing increasingly exasperated by a squad unable and unwilling to implement his tactics, Rangnick used his pre-match news conferences to deliver some pretty stark home truths.
He had already made it very public that he believed United could make 10 new signings this summer, that they needed more physical players and that the team spirit necessary for success was sorely lacking.
He even said the answers on recruitment were not rocket science.
It is not clear whether Ten Hag agrees, but when he was asked about Rangnick at his first news conference, the Dutchman was dismissive.
“That is on the club,” he said. Given that statement – and United’s belief they are moving in the right direction – ending the agreement with Rangnick before it really began made sense for all parties.
More freedom for Ten Hag
United say Rangnick’s period in charge allowed them time to carry out both an exhaustive process to identify Solskjaer’s long-term successor, and streamline their method of finding new players.
The manager and recruitment department retain power of veto over potential transfer targets, but United believe what they now have in place will provide more consistency.
All United’s senior scouts report to Steve Brown – the club’s head of recruitment operations – and Ten Hag will clearly have his own thoughts on players.
Both will now feed into football director John Murtough, and there will no longer be any involvement at executive level until potential deals reach their latter stages.
New chief executive Richard Arnold is keen to empower those with the right skillset to make decisions.
That should allow Ten Hag to operate with a greater degree of freedom, and many of the players he is looking at – such as defenders Jurrien Timber and Lisandro Martinez, and winger Antony – play for his former club Ajax or – in the case of midfielder Frenkie de Jong – did in the past.
A realistic vision this summer
There is also a realism to United’s vision for the summer.
With a limited budget, the club are adamant they will not overpay, and BBC Sport has been told “there will not be a United premium”.
The scope for raising additional funds may be limited and, from a financial perspective, bringing in the 10 players Rangnick spoke about would be tough.
Five players – midfielders Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic, and forwards Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani – are out of contract at the end of next month and will attract no fee. Others – such as defenders Phil Jones and Eric Bailly – have time left, but appear to have no future at the club.
Beyond that, there are players – such as full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Diogo Dalot, and others who have been on loan, including midfielders Donny van de Beek and James Garner, and winger Amad Diallo – who Ten Hag quickly needs to assess.
Then there are bigger names – including forward Marcus Rashford and defenders Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire – who are capable of far more than they have shown of late.
Ten Hag’s task is to mould that together into a coherent unit, capable of playing the kind of possession-based football he demands.
The work begins on 24 June, when United’s non-international players begin their pre-season training. The first test will come on 12 July, when they meet Liverpool in Bangkok.
By then, Rangnick will be long gone. Ten Hag’s job is to make sure he stays a distant memory.
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