Ralf Rangnick at Schalke: The History and the Future

On Friday afternoon, BILD broke the news that Ralf Rangnick was set to become Schalke’s Sporting Director for the 2021/22 season and plan for life in 2. Bundesliga as their inevitable relegation looms large. The report highlighted his plans and desire to help Schalke on their way back to the Bundesliga and subsequent success. The following day, Kicker reported that talks had been taking place since 2020 and the club may act now due to the severity of the situation.


Schalke themselves were coy about the reports saying, “a ‘preliminary agreement’ between FC Schalke 04 and Rangnick or his advisor are not true. Nevertheless, Ralf Rangnick is and remains a highly respected professional and a welcome ex-Schalker”. Fans, though, were delighted and were willing to welcome him with open arms. The same day the initial reports came out, an online petition was made asking the club to bring Rangnick back to Gelsenkirchen and it reached over 43,900 signatures two days later.


The story from BILD highlighted some major points of Rangnick’s proposed takeover: there would be a five-year contract which would likely be his last before he retires (he is currently 62-years-old so his next job is likely to be his last). It also said Rangnick wants to get promoted with the “youngest team of all time” and he hopes to turn the club around. Despite that, there is some resistance to his arrival from certain board members.


According to Süddeutsche Zeitung, the movement to bring Rangnick back to Schalke is led by “wealthy friends of the club,” “currently active sponsors” and “former club employees,” not a “fickle sheikh” or a “morally questionable investor.” However, some board members (some of whom are due to leave their roles this summer) feel the movement is “treachery” and that RB Leipzig’s Sporting Director Markus Krösche is a more valuable option (Krösche denied any chances of the move happening on Sunday evening).


Of course, this wouldn’t be Rangnick’s first stint at Schalke, and not his second either. A return would mark his third spell at the Gelsenkirchen club, and the previous two ended with a sacking and a resignation. Rangnick first joined the club in September 2004 after the club had made a slow start to the season. 


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In time, they would become one of the league’s best teams, challenging Bayern Munich for the title. They wouldn’t win the league after a tired second half to the campaign but did finish second and qualified for the Champions League, bringing a much-needed financial boost. 


The following season, Rangnick fell out with club general manager Rudi Assauer. Schalke struggled in the Champions League and even lost 6-0 to Eintracht Frankfurt in the DFB Pokal. It became clear that Rangnick wouldn’t manage the club after the season got over, but in December 2005, before a game against Mainz, he set off on a lap of honour around the Veltins Arena as the fans showed their appreciation for the manager. This infuriated the board, and the following day, his departure was brought forward and Rangnick was sacked. 


“I couldn’t help it. I can understand that some players and the board took it as a provocation, but for me it was an absolute emotional exception. I believe 100 per cent that the team and I could have continued to work together. I would have turned a blind eye and swallowed some toads (kröte schlucken / swallowing toads is a German phrase).”


He would add: “It hurts that I can’t continue working here,” perhaps indicating that he enjoyed his time and would be open in coming back to the club in the future.


Just over five years later, after doing some fine work at Hoffenheim, taking them from the third division to the first and briefly being in a title race with Bayern Munich in their debut Bundesliga game, Rangnick would return to Schalke in March 2011. The team had a few talented players – most notably, Manuel Neuer and Raúl – and while they were inconsistent in the league, they were on a great run in the DFB Pokal and the Champions League. 


In the cup, Rangnick’s team were already in the final when he arrived and in the final against second-division Duisburg, they would run riot and win 5-0, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scoring twice. In Europe, Schalke would beat reigning European champions Inter 7-3 on aggregate (including a 5-2 win at the San Siro) to reach the semi-finals of the tournament, where they would lose to Manchester United 6-1 across two legs. 


This spell was even shorter than the first stint. After winning the Supercup, beating rivals Borussia Dortmund, Rangnick would depart Schalke in 2011, citing exhaustion syndrome, saying he didn’t have “the necessary energy to be successful and to develop the team and the club.” A few months later, he would join the Red Bull football family after a call from Gérard Houllier. Now, there’s a chance of a second return and a third spell, and this will be the most important of all if he does end up taking the job.


What might the future look like under Rangnick, should he arrive at Schalke once again? Positive, for starters. There wouldn’t be a guarantee of immediate promotion but Rangnick would certainly make Schalke a force. Schalke have needed a reboot for a while now and with Rangnick at the helm, they would have the ideal man to not only implement it, but make it work and more importantly, make it last. Without a doubt, there will be some obstacles and finding a way around them will be crucial if Rangnick wants long-term sustainability.


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His work at Hoffenheim, Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig may be able to provide a bit of an indication into what this modern Schalke may look like. Unlike the billions of Dietmar Hopp and Dietrich Mateschitz, he won’t have the same access to funds in Gelsenkirchen, but football-wise, the ideas will still exist and could provide a healthy future for a club that’s been troubled with debts, ageing players and broken ideas. 


Academy and Youth


A key element of the report by BILD was that Rangnick wanted to help Schalke return to the Bundesliga with “youngest team of all time” – and that is something that he is no stranger to. At the Internationale Trainer-Kongress in Bochum in 2017, a TED-like event for coaches to share the ideas, Rangnick spoke about why he was keen on working with younger players and how they benefited the club in the short and long-run. Some of the main points were:


  • Younger players have a lesser injury history and faster regeneration process
  • Tactical differences: they have a greater will to acquire and implement tactical concepts
  • Motivational differences: young players want to get better; older players want to defend their position or get back to their previous reputation
  • Cognitive differences: the attention filter of younger players is much wider than that of older players
  • Social differences: The influence of external parties (fellow players, parents, agents, coaches) gives younger players a better understanding and aids in improving their social intelligence
  • High potential for market value enhancement


Given Schalke’s famous history of working with young players, these are plans that align well with the club. Recent years have seen Schalke produce world-beaters and World Cup winners. Their alumni include the likes of Leon Goretzka, Mesut Özil, Julian Draxler, Leroy Sané and Manuel Neuer (who was Rangnick’s goalkeeper when they won the DFB Pokal in 2011) amongst others and combining that with Rangnick’s expansive network that goes beyond borders, this is something that can be enhanced. 


Additionally, the point of there being motivational differences will be attractive to fans. The last year has been exhausting: watching their team win just once in the league since the start of 2020 is an awful record and having a breath of fresh air with a team that fans’ can connect to can revitalize the whole club. Furthermore, Schalke are in desperate need of money, with the club’s debt going well over €200m. A long-term vision with their squad where they buy low and sell high – something Rangnick’s previous teams were renowned for – will sit well in Gelsenkirchen. 

Streamlining Finances and Global Scouting


According to data from 2020 (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), Schalke had the seventh-highest wage will in the Bundesliga. It’s fair to assume that may have decreased since then considering the circumstances, but for a team that isn’t performing to well on and off the pitch, the number is still quite high. Rangnick’s biggest challenge at Schalke would be to reduce that, and he has experience of doing it at Red Bull Salzburg. Although the Austrian club were successful domestically, they had a short-term model that wasn’t going anywhere great.


Salzburg’s model relied on bringing in older, experienced names, many of whom made a name for themselves in the Bundesliga. Between 2005, when Red Bull took over, and 2012, when Rangnick arrived, players like Niko Kovač (35), René Aufhauser (29) and Simon Cziommer (29) arrived and didn’t exactly live up to expectations. That all changed when Rangnick joined and adjusted the philosophy, as his methods and far-reaching ideas led to the arrival of the likes of Sadio Mané, Naby Keïta, Péter Gulácsi and Kevin Kampl, amongst others.


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Whilst these names weren’t widely-recognised when they were signed, they became iconic figures in Salzburg and earned bigger moves after that, giving Salzburg self-sustainability in finances and the team a high level of performance on the pitch. For example, Mané was brought in from Ligue 2 club Metz for €4m and was sold to Southampton two years later for nearly five times the price. Keïta, meanwhile, was signed for €1.5m, before leaving to RB Leipzig – Salzburg’s cousins in Germany – for €11m and then to Liverpool for €60m. 


At Hoffenheim, when they were in the second division, the team had plenty of young, brimming talent and found their way to the top-flight. Brazilians such as Luiz Gustavo and Carlos Eduardo were joined by Senegalese forward Demba Ba, who was signed from Belgium’s Excelsior Mouscron, and Chinedu Obasi, who moved from Norway’s Lyn. Hoffenheim also got some cut-price deals from Germany: Francisco Copado, Marvin Compper, Salihović and Ibišević. Clearing out the hefty wage bill and freeing up funds may make something like this possible at Schalke.


Schalke are tight on spending money, but there is no doubt that if Rangnick signs and is given control, he will be able to turn coal into diamond and help the club in terms of performances on the pitch and improving their financial record off it. 


Changes in Coaching and Playing Philosophy


Another perk of bringing in Rangnick is the personnel he brings with him. New Schalke coach Dimitrios Grammozis hasn’t been in the job long enough to make a significant impact and given that he has a contract until next summer, one would imagine he’ll be given a chance to lead them in the second division. However, if Rangnick does come in and he decides to shuffle the pack, his eye for quality coaches is supreme.


At Red Bull Salzburg, he appointed Roger Schmidt from 2. Bundesliga club Paderborn. He was also in charge when the likes of Adi Hütter (at Salzburg) and Alexander Zorniger (at RB Leipzig) were successful with their respective clubs.


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With a set playing philosophy that revolves around aggressive pressing, verticality and attacking football, his teams are always exciting to watch and he wants his fellow coaches to maintain a similar idea. Speaking to The Blizzard about his footballing ideas, Rangnick said:


  • Add maximum possibility to the team and act, don’t react. You need to dictate the game with and without the ball, not through individuals.
  • Use numerical superiority and let the ball run directly whenever possible, with no unnecessary individual action and no fouls.
  • Use transitions and switch quickly. Try to win back the ball within five seconds with aggressive pressing. After winning the ball back, play quickly straight away, play direct and vertically towards the opponent’s goal, surprise the disorganized opponent to get into the penalty area and shoot within 10 seconds of winning the ball back.
  • The more a team sprints faster to win back the ball the greater the likelihood they will score a goal once they have won it back quickly.


Backroom Staff


However, even if he does retain the coaching staff, there are likely to be people employed at other areas of the club to ensure constant progression in various areas. At Hoffenheim, Rangnick appointed Bernhard Peters, the former hockey coach, as an advisor. The two frequently discussed tactics, attacking set-ups, modern technology and form intensive training drills, using Peters’ wisdom from the world of hockey and applying it to football. 


At the Red Bull clubs, people such as Paul Mitchell, the former MK Dons, Southampton and Tottenham Head of Recruitment was given the reins. In his tenure with Leipzig, he was in charge of forming key links in England as well as contributing to the signings of players such as Nordi Mukiele. Additionally, figures like Thiago Scuro (Red Bull Bragantino) and Kevin Thelwell (New York Red Bulls) and Christoph Freund (Red Bull Salzburg) were either appointed or given greater responsibility and they have been influential in changing the way the network operates.


Ernst Tanner is another great example. He was in charge of making Red Bull Salzburg’s academy the most successful in Austria. Between 2013 and 2019 (Tanner’s tenure) Salzburg’s three primary youth teams – U15, U16 and U18 – won 15 of the 21 domestic league titles available to them. Tanner was also responsible for the appointment of Marco Rose to the Salzburg youth teams, where he won the UEFA Youth League, and subsequently, the Salzburg senior team.


Marco Rose and the Art of Exceeding Expectations


Would It Work?


Worth reiterating once again: the scale of the operation at Hoffenheim and the Red Bull clubs was much bigger than it can be at Schalke. When Rangnick joined both, he didn’t have over €200m of debt weighing him down, but if he does take the Schalke job, there would hardly be a better man to work within those restrictions and get the best out of it. 


Rangnick has worked with small budgets before. At Ulm, he enabled the team to go from the third division to the Bundesliga; at Stuttgart, he inspired a coaching revolution alongside Helmut Groß that inspired the likes of Thomas Tuchel and Joachim Löw. His recent work at Hoffenheim and the Red Bull clubs had more spending freedom, but it’s worth mentioning the three Cs (or three Ks in German): Capital, Concept and Competence – something Rangnick takes everywhere.


Helmut Groß, Controlled Chaos and the Stuttgart School


Rangnick wants his clubs to be self-sustaining when it comes to money: the buy low, sell high model has worked successfully in both his previous clubs. He also wants a clear playing philosophy – that is the concept. Competence is giving players time to grow and freedom to make mistakes as long as they recover well and learn from it.


If Schalke are to return to their rightful place in the top-flight, Ralf Rangnick is the ideal man to take them forward. It’s difficult and there is resistance against the idea, but it is the sensible thing to do for the club’s long-term future.


By: Karan Tejwani

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / TF-Images / DeFodi Images