Manchester United have just employed a full-time sports psychologist for the first time in 20 years. Why’s it taken them so long to replace the last one?
Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world of football.
Today…Ralf Rangnick brings Man United up to date.
It was the worst kept secret in football.
Journalists and pundits weren’t talking about if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be sacked – it was instead a question of when.
And once United had finally pulled the trigger… who would replace him?
The club had taken a lot of flak for their decision making… or lack of it.
“You say the club is stable, and they won’t make a decision right now…and I don’t think they should. But you can change stable for…they’re terrified to make a change. Because they’re terrified to bring someone in, like they did with Van Gaal or Mourinho and it’s not a Manchester United guy. So I think the Manchester United board right now, I don’t think it’s a case of staying strong…I think it’s a case of actually panicking…”Sky Sports
But this time, it seemed like they had at least been thinking outside of the box.
They appointed the German coach, Ralf Rangnick.
He is nicknamed the Godfather of modern German football. He had recently overseen football development for the Red Bull family of teams… Salzburg, Leipzig and New York.
“The guy is a football genius, there’s no question about that. I mean, this was the guy who was very much a pioneer when he was bringing his vision of pressing, counterpressing and that kind of very quick, vertical style. And there’s a lot of coaches that have taken a leaf out of his book…Thomas Tuchel is one of those…”talkSPORT
He’s a boss who likes to impose his ideas from top to bottom. A move to AC Milan a couple of years ago was said to have collapsed because the two parties couldn’t agree on his total control.
One of his very first moves as United boss? To employ a sports psychologist. A man he’s worked with in the past – Sacha Lense.
“For me, it’s only a question of logic. If you have special coaches for goalkeeping, for physical education, for… even for strikers, for whatever and for fitness…you also should have an expert for the brain.”Eurosport
Rangnick says that it’s “vital” at the top level.
And you can see why he thinks that. Sports psychologists can help overcome performance anxiety, they can improve focus and concentration, they can motivate and create a stronger team spirit.
They help ease the mental load of an athlete who is going through a long and arduous recovery from serious injury.
Manchester United have not employed a full-time sports psychologist since Bill Beswick left the club in 2001.
Yet employing a sports psychologist is nothing new in football. John Nasoori – creator of the Football Psychology Show – explains.
“So if you look at United’s top six rivals, most, although not all, have had performance psychology departments in place for a number of years. So if you look at City, they have 3-4 specialists working in this area, and Liverpool and Chelsea both have really highly regarded teams in place as well. But United’s track record of even public pronouncements on the subject is pretty thin on the ground.”John Nasoori
Rangnick himself said that almost all German teams have a psychologist, it’s normal practice.
So the question is, why have United gone without a full time psychologist for twenty years?
There are several reasons.
The first is metrics. John Nasoori explained to me that there is no set way to measure the impact of a sports psychologist – that they often deal in the “intangibles.” And with statistics so popular in football, you can imagine the thought process, if you can’t measure something, it’s not worth having.
The second is managerial backing.
All the managers that followed Sir Alex Ferguson were under intense scrutiny. They needed to appear like they were in control. Would hiring a psychologist have undermined their authority?
Rangnick is his own man. And he has a set way of working. Perhaps he is the first manager with the confidence to demand a psychologist… and enough humility to acknowledge the need for one?
The third possibility could be that the Manchester United board were under such pressure since Fergie’s departure that they couldn’t see what needed to change.
After all, they’ve come in for their fair share of criticism for lacking a coherent strategy.
And then there are the players. They have come to appreciate how sports psychologists can improve their performance.
Here’s former West Ham and Manchester City winger Trevor Sinclair.
“Well I didn’t realise how important it was until what…97-98. I erm…I had a bad knee injury. I’d always been able to deal with things myself. I came back from the injury and I couldn’t find a performance. And I was trying different ways to get myself prepared for games and I just couldn’t get that consistency in performances. I hired a psychologist…Keith Power…I’m still friends with him today. He came and he helped me.”talkSPORT
When you consider that a psychologist helped Sinclair almost 25 years ago… it really does seem like United have been behind the times.
And looking at some of the players’ body language under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it certainly appears that they’ve badly needed one.
Now that they have a man in charge with a clear vision and a path mapped out, we might finally start to see some improvement.
Rangnick has made an unbeaten start to life at Old Trafford. So far, so good…
Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Gary Marshall.