There will be no revolution at Milan or, at least, no Ralf-o-lution. For months, many reported it was a done deal: Ralf Rangnick, the guru of the Red Bull empire and recruitment savant, was going to shake Milan to its foundation, taking over in a de facto dual role as coach and technical director with sweeping, absolute powers.
But on Tuesday night, during Milan’s 2-1 win at Sassuolo, news broke of a handbrake turn, confirmed shortly thereafter by Rangnick’s representatives and the club itself: he would not take over “any role” at the club because the it was not the “right time.” Instead, Stefano Pioli, who has recorded seven wins and three draws in 10 matches since the Serie A restart, would be getting a two-year extension.
There are plenty of layers to this. The simplest reading is that Pioli “earned” his new deal. He took over as interim boss in early October with the team in 10th place and has since lifted them to fifth, with a run to the Coppa Italia semifinals on the side. He continued to develop the club’s gifted youngsters, squeezed performances out of some of the veterans, navigated unscathed through Zvonimir Boban’s acrimonious departure and got on great with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has contributed four goals and three assists since July 1.
Contrast this with Rangnick. Football genius? Probably. But Rangnick didn’t want to be Milan’s coach, and he didn’t want to be Milan’s recruitment guru. He wanted to do both. He wanted the sort of omnipotence and total control that, frankly, nobody at a major European club has. And, in fact, nobody has had since the dying days of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal or Sir Alex at Manchester United.
It’s worth noting, too, that neither man enjoyed absolute control from day one, but rather built it over time thanks to their achievements. In Wenger’s case, it ended with discord, fan protests and underachievement (a situation Milan’s current CEO, Ivan Gazidis, knows all too well, since he was the guy who eventually had to usher Wenger out the door). As for Sir Alex, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “Ralf, you’re no Sir Alex.”
Rangnick asked for powers far beyond what he enjoyed at Leipzig (he did have two stints as coach, but both were on an interim basis) and far beyond what even the most powerful managers in the game — Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp — enjoy. He also wanted them from day one, in a league where he has never coached, in a country where he doesn’t speak the language, at a club where many fans are still living in the shadow of their gilded history.
There’s a reason why — not just in football, but in any sport — there’s a divide between coach and head of recruitment/general manager/director of football/call it what you will. It’s a hugely time-consuming job and the skill sets are different. Thinking a 62-year-old man could simply walk in and do both is a huge ask and an even bigger gamble. Not to mention the fact that Rangnick is a workaholic who, eight years ago, walked away from his job at Schalke citing “exhaustion.” Or the fact that, like many geniuses, even his biggest fans say he can be “difficult” and not exactly known for diplomacy or schmoozing.
The solution may have been keep Pioli for a year or two, working under Rangnick. Pioli is a tactical chameleon; already his brand of football isn’t far off Rangnick’s. He’s low-key and not an egomaniac. It might have worked, but Rangnick made it clear that was a non-starter.
In the end, it’s probably the safer choice for Milan and certainly the most popular one, given the suspicion and acrimony directed towards Rangnick from the moment his name started floating around in Italy. (That, by the way, is a weakness of many Serie A lifers: the belief that it’s somehow so different and difficult that no “outsider” can ever crack it.)
But the narrative that Pioli “deserved” the job, or that everything will be fine because he’s sticking around, is itself flawed. First off, you don’t ditch or keep a manager, especially one with an expiring contract, based on whether he “deserves” to stay. Nobody “deserves” to coach a top-flight club while earning millions for the privilege. You keep him if you think you can’t get anybody who can do a better job at a price (not just economic but in terms of upheaval and repercussions as well) you afford.
The other issue runs deeper and is at the heart of why Milan wanted Rangnick in the first place.
Very few people in football anywhere can match Rangnick’s record when it comes to building a club, both in terms of coaching and recruitment. At Red Bull, he was building from scratch; at Milan he would have to awaken a giant. And he was going to do it by being smart, by being daring, by being creative and different. Plus, given Financial Fair Play and the disastrous financial situation following the Li Yonghong and late Silvio Berlusconi years, he was going to get bang for buck and value in the market.
That was the logic and it isn’t hard to grasp, so what changed since the restart? Did the owners conclude that a run of good results under Pioli meant that everything was fine and the innovation and scouting and construction Rangnick was meant to be bring are no longer needed? You hope not, because that would be foolish.
Pioli has had a tremendous run. Partly because he’s a good manager with gifted young players who are punching their weight, and partly because of the January arrivals of Simon Kjaer at the back and Ibrahimovic up front. Ibrahimovic, with eight goals in 17 starts, is 38, a short-term rental and an expensive one at that. Kjaer is 31 and will stick around, but it’s evident they need to find a successor.
The issues that prompted them to woo Rangnick are still there. There is still a desire (as CEO Ivan Gazidis laid out) to grow via youth and value signings rather than big name “patches” like Ibrahimovic and Kjaer. The question is how much the decision-makers at the club — a group that includes Gazidis, Paolo Maldini, sporting director Ricky Massara, Hendrik Almstadt and chief scout Geoffrey Moncada — are united in buying into that view.
When he left, slamming the door behind him, Boban suggested there was plenty of division. Giving Rangnick full powers was a way of countering that. Without him, they either need to reach an understanding or they’ll run into the same problem as before. Otherwise, it won’t matter whether the person on the bench is Stefano Pioli, Steph Curry or Gwen Stefani.