The last time Ralf Rangnick took a seat at Old Trafford in an official coaching capacity, he watched Manchester United flex their muscles, show off the depth of their resources and sweep the opposition aside.
Rangnick could only look on in awe. It was a Champions League semi-final, yet United rested a clutch of senior players, so confident were they of commanding Rangnick’s Schalke.
That was a little over a decade ago, Alex Ferguson was leading United to the penultimate Premier League title of his long reign and so sure was he that Schalke, 2-0 down from the first leg, would test his team less than Chelsea, domestic title rivals whom United faced four days later, that Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs were on the bench. Rio Ferdinand, Park Ji-sung, and Wayne Rooney had been left out altogether.
So had Michael Carrick, a star performer in the first leg. As Carrick would later recall, the wholesale changes provoked some alarm in the dressing-room. “When we were alone, the players were like, ‘What the hell is the Boss doing?,’ wrote Carrick in his autobiography. “Sir Alex must be the only manager in history to rest players for a Champions League semi-final.
“It was moments like this,” Carrick then reflected, “when I admired the Boss even more because he was just a born risk-taker.”
Ferguson’s risk paid off. Rangnick’s Schalke did manage a goal, but conceded four, to go out 6-1 on aggregate. Senior United players returned that weekend to inflict a decisive defeat on title rivals Chelsea.
As in those two legs of May 2011, Carrick will have one match - against Arsenal - to make an impression on the watching Rangnick, before stepping back from centre stage. The German, newly appointed as interim United manager, hopes to have formally completed his visa prerequisites in time for the weekend game against Crystal Palace, bringing an end to the two-week period of Carrick’s caretaker role following the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
To a degree, Carrick is auditioning for a future that Rangnick, who will manage United at least until June and then remain as a consultant, may have a say in designing. So far, the 63-year-old German has seen promise. Carrick’s first game in charge, with little prior notice, was the victory at Villarreal that secured United’s place in the next round of the Champions League. He followed up with Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Chelsea, a point stealthily gained.
Rangnick has spent far more time in grandstands than on touchlines in the decade since he guided Schalke to the last four of the European Cup. Expect him to betray few signs of coaching rustiness - his last head-coach job, at RB Leipzig, finished in mid-2019 - when he takes his first United session. Rangnick has clear ideas, no lack of belief in his methods and, since he was headhunted by United from his executive position at Lokomotiv Moscow, has been rigorous about his homework. Not for nothing is he known in Germany as "The Professor".
Being back at Old Trafford, 10 years on from that Champions League semi-final, cannot help but resonate for him. He will on Thursday night watch duels between old and young: Arsenal are well down the road to a future built around fledgling talents while Carrick continues to balance the merits of a 36-year-old superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, against the 20-somethings, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.
When Rangnick brought Schalke to Manchester, he had one young star, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, and an illustrious veteran, Spain’s Raul, then 33, up front. While his coaching had taken an otherwise patchwork squad much further in Europe than had been forecast, they were no heavyweights. His Schalke ended up as the 14th best team in that season’s Bundesliga.
They would be comfortably bulldozed out of Europe by a United whose headliners in that second leg tell the story of how second-string Ferguson’s chosen side had been. Darron Gibson set up one goal and scored another; the Brazilian Anderson scored his only brace for the club.
Paul Scholes, who was the same age, 36, as Ronaldo is now, ran the midfield. Dimitar Berbatov, sometimes criticised, as Ronaldo is now, for not chasing and harrying off the ball, played at centre-forward.
By the time Berbatov set up the fourth goal that evening, United fans, distracted, deprived of suspense, were singing songs about old, departed playing heroes. Solskjaer’s name featured. There will be recognition for him on Thursday, too, at the first home game since he was sacked as manager.