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Ralf Rangnick Is Soccer’s Most Intriguing Free Agent

Though Germany’s relationship with Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, the teams with which Rangnick is most intimately associated, remains uneasy, nobody holds his lack of playing career against him anymore. “If you look at the Bundesliga, the vast majority of coaches did not play at the very highest level,” he said.

Despite his vindication, though, he has no great wish to reverse engineer a sense of destiny onto his story. The way he tells it, his rise is pockmarked with coincidences. There was the day, as a player, he won man of the match in a game in which all he did was mark the opposition’s star. “I asked myself,” he said, “what did you actually do today, other than spoil it for him?”

There was the time the amateur team he was coaching was summoned to play a friendly against Valery Lobanovsky’s Dynamo Kyiv. “I was sure I’d made a mistake, that I’d named one player fewer,” Rangnick said. “Because it seemed to me they definitely had more people on the pitch.”

And there was Germany’s decision in the late 1990s to invest heavily in its youth system, combined with its failure on the international stage at the European Championships in 2000, which created the conditions in which his brand of soccer — and coaches without an illustrious background — could thrive.

That interpretation of his own story is significant when it comes to considering the future of the game he has helped to shape. It is possible to read soccer’s history as a battle of ideas, where each strategy that rises to prominence is, sooner or later, first neutralized and then countermanded by a new one.

Or it is also possible to see it — as Rangnick does — less as a tale of conflict between systems and more one of communion between them. As far as he was concerned, he was simply building on the work of the likes of Arrigo Sacchi, the great A.C. Milan manager, as well as Lobanovsky.

What comes next, in his mind, will not overturn the orthodoxy he helped establish, but build on it. He is particularly intrigued by how teams use set pieces. A third of goals come from corners, free kicks and throw-ins, he said. And yet a third of training time is not dedicated to their practice. He does not believe the pressing era is the end of history. It is just another start.

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