Ralf Rangnick chuckles at the memory of the moment he fell in love with English football. He was a 21-year-old student on a year abroad at Sussex University, as part of his degree in English and PE at Stuttgart University. On 10 November 1979 he went to the old Goldstone Ground and watched Brighton & Hove Albion lose 4-1 to Liverpool. “I remember the Brighton fans singing, ‘Seagulls! Seagulls!’ despite the score-line,” Rangnick said. “And the Liverpool fans responded: ‘Seaweed! Seaweed!’ Scouse humour, huh?”

Rangnick played for the local non-league side Southwick FC and before his first game, against Steyning Town, he turned up two hours before kick-off ready for a warm-up routine. His teammates appeared 10 minutes before kick-off. After his debut, he ended up in Chichester hospital with three broken ribs and a punctured lung, but even that did not put him off. He played 11 times for Southwick, a short period that moulded him as a coach. “The most important thing for me was the amount of coaching we did on the pitch,” he said. “There was hardly a situation where we didn’t spur each other on, doing some coaching among ourselves or motivating each other. That was totally inspirational for me.”

Rangnick took the lessons into his coaching career, which began as a youth coach at Stuttgart. He first appeared in the German consciousness after appearing on the TV show Das Aktuelle Sportstudio on 19 December 1998, talking up the merits of a flat back four in front of a magnetic tactics board. He earned the nickname ‘Professor’, but it was not a complimentary one. At the time he was head coach of second division side SSV Ulm and as most teams then played three at the back, he was dismissed as an eccentric without a successful playing career behind him.

In the 2014-15 Bundesliga season, coaches like Roger Schmidt (Bayer Leverkusen) and Marcus Gisdol (Hoffenheim) were feted for their tactical smartness: it was no coincidence that they shared the same coaching instructor as Rangnick, Helmut Gross, at the Württemberg academy. “He was years ahead of his time, talking about ball-oriented spatial coverage and pressing opponents back in the mid-1980s,” said Rangnick. “The next step is to transfer those theories onto your players.”

When SSV Ulm won promotion, other clubs took Rangnick seriously and in 1999 he was appointed by Stuttgart. He flopped there: in part, because he was not used to working under a sports director. It was a similar story at Hannover 96 and Schalke, but everything changed when he took charge at third-division Hoffenheim in 2006. This time, he had control of the club from top to bottom and his time there – consecutive promotions and consolidation in the Bundesliga – was the most successful of his career.

He resigned in January 2011 and was all set to take a year out before Schalke persuaded him back three months later: he went on to win the German Cup and a place in the Champions League semi-final (beating Internazionale 7-3 on aggregate in the quarter-final) that season. He left in September, citing exhaustion, and has since admitted he should have seen out that sabbatical year in full.

That did not put off a succession of English clubs – including West Brom, Everton, and Brighton – getting in touch with him, but with no luck. In summer 2012, Rangnick was drinking coffee with a friend when he received a phone call from Gerard Houllier. “Hi Ralf, I’m just with Dietrich Mateschitz [the founder and owner of the Red Bull energy drink company] and we wondered if you were around,” said the Frenchman. “We’re going to jump in a helicopter and visit you this afternoon.”

Rangnick was persuaded to join Mateschitz’s team, and since then, he has been sports director of Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig. The two ‘brand-owned’ clubs have caused controversy, for differing reasons, in their respective regions but the switch upstairs has suited the German. He still thinks like a coach, but having a certain distance allows more clear-headed decision-making. “I’m convinced that emotional thinking, either in the euphoria of success or crisis, causes the biggest mistakes in football. Coaching brings you to those extremes every day.”

Rangnick certainly looks healthy when we meet on a wintry afternoon in Zurich. He is about to address delegates at the International Football Arena conference, hosted at Fifa House, where he would explain his past, his philosophy and his future. He may still love the English game, but a job coaching there seems increasingly unlikely now.

How would you sum up your first two years at Red Bull?

A lot has happened. In Salzburg, in the first official Champions League game against [the Luxembourg champions] FC Dudelange, we lost after two legs [4-4 on away goals]. After 20 minutes you could see from the stands that it was not a good game. For me it was impossible to lose, but it happened; we made a lot of changes to our squad and staff after that. Last season we won the double; we didn’t qualify for the Champions League [losing to Fenerbahçe just before they were banned from the competition] but we did well in the Europa League. We were very unlucky to lose to FC Basel in the round of 16.

We have an exciting squad, with some young players who are on the list of bigger clubs. The development is good, we have the kind of squad we were trying to get, and that experience against Dudelange accelerated the process.

What about RB Leipzig?

Leipzig started in the fourth division with an average attendance of 2,000 fans, and now we are in the top six in the second division after two consecutive promotions. The average attendance is now 30,000, and recently we played against St Pauli in front of 40,000 so the development there is amazing, especially in terms of the public interest.

What’s the philosophy driving you?

The difference between us and other clubs is that when we sign or scout new players, we are fishing in a very small pond. We only interested in players aged between 17 and 23, as from our experience, when you are 23 you are no longer a talent. If you look at other clubs and their development, you can see that players start their careers earlier than 10 years ago and finish earlier too. So we are only scouting those players. The maximum age is 23. The second difference is that in both clubs, we try to implement and play the same style of football and of course between the two clubs, we make use of synergies that can be developed out of those two factors.

Does that make it even more important that you hire the right people?

What I did at the start of working with both clubs was to spend five weeks in Salzburg and another four in Leipzig to get to know the people who were in place at the time. Were the right people there? I’m convinced that you have to have the right man or woman for the right job and we tried to do that, to keep the right ones and change others. Some of the positions we didn’t have at all: for example, we now have a sports psychologist in both clubs, a nutritionist responsible for players’ diet at both clubs. I tried to use my network, especially the one I used in Hoffenheim, and there are many people that I have worked with before who are with us.

What has been the local reaction to the presence of Red Bull in Salzburg and Leipzig? Are fans happy that you have been successful or is there a backlash against the commercial element of the club?

It’s different in the two cities. When Red Bull came to Salzburg in 2004-05, the former Austria Salzburg club was bankrupt so Dietrich Mateschitz bought the club. At the time, they decided to change almost everything: the name of the stadium, the colours of the jersey, the badge. Had I been there then, I would have persuaded them to do it more moderately. We know that football is an emotional business and supporters identify themselves through those things. There are three things you cannot change when you buy a club in England and those are the three things. That was why in the beginning, the Austria Salzburg fans more or less left the club and it was hard to win other fans back. Then we started playing some good attractive games in the league and Europe and the stadium sold out. There are only 10 top-flight clubs in Austria, and six are small, more or less village clubs. In Germany you might have no more than three or four like that. But in Austria it’s six out of ten and if you play them four times a season, or five times if there is a Cup tie, then that is not very exciting [for fans].

Leipzig was different. The club existed in the fifth division in 2009, and at the time the people in Leipzig didn’t know what to do with this new club. In the end, all the traditional clubs in the city went bankrupt, and when Mr Mateschitz started this venture, people were very apprehensive. There has been big progress in the last two years and that’s why I say the development in attendances is amazing. Even away from home we had 600 fans who travelled just before Christmas five hours by coach to Sandhausen. In Leipzig, the team has been accepted. There are young players that no one knew whom we have discovered and the fans in the city acknowledge the way we play and it works well together.

Describe the style you’re trying to bring to both teams.

When Mr Mateschitz called me, the average age of the two squads was 29. In fact, it was almost 30 at Salzburg and 29 in Leipzig. The players they were signing were signing their last contracts. When he asked what I would change I said, “The commercial slogan says, ‘Red Bull gives you wings’. The target market [for Red Bull] is 16-25, and young people don’t identify themselves with 30 year olds, so you need players the same age or slightly older.” So we have changed the average age in Salzburg to 24 and in Leipzig it’s similar. We have reduced the average age of the whole squad by four years in the last two seasons.

You did something similar at Hoffenheim, didn’t you?

Yes, at Hoffenheim the average age when we won promotion to Bundesliga was 21.9; it was actually younger than the club’s Under-23 team. But for us [at Red Bull], it didn’t make sense to have an old team if the product is aimed at 16-25 year olds.

How important is it to play in a way that suits the Red Bull brand? Does Mateschitz have a vision of how he wants his teams to play?

Mr Mateschitz said to me when we first met in 2012 that he’s not a football man but he has a vision and this is what I like most about him. It was the same as F1 six years ago; in one of his rare press conferences he said I want to win the F1 title and at the time Ferrari and Mercedes laughed at him. They thought he had drunk too much Red Bull. We all know what happened: they won the title four years in a row. I explained how I would try to develop the two clubs; to sign young unknown talented players and to play an attacking, high-pressing and quick transitional football, because that is more suited to the Red Bull brand than a defensive, apprehensive and counter-attack and cautious game. And he thought that sounded good. After Dudelange he was not amused; he thought, “What are you doing?” Since then, he has realised we didn’t do too much wrong in the last two years and he trusts that we are doing the right things with the money he gives us.

So how does the team play in a Red Bull way?

Here are the principles: one, add maximum possibility to the team and act, don’t react. So you need to dictate the game with and without the ball, not through individuals. Two, use numerical superiority and let the ball run directly whenever possible, with no unnecessary individual action and with no fouls. Three, use transitions, 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 disorganised opponent to get into the penalty area and shoot within ten seconds of winning the ball back.

At Hoffenheim, we did research and showed that the likelihood of scoring is within eight seconds of winning back the ball. In training we have a countdown clock and the target is to score within 10 seconds. Jürgen Klopp has said that the best playmaker is ‘perfect counter-pressing’. So four, the more a team sprints (i.e. the more the players sprint) faster to win back the ball then there is a greater likelihood they will score a goal once they have won it back quickly.

You used to love zonal marking…

When I was an Under-19 coach at VfB Stuttgart, in the early 1990s, we developed zonal marking even though in the 1990s, Germany was famous for playing with a libero. But in the last few years Barcelona changed football again. Zonal marking is not special, but pace in transition has changed football. You used to hear people say this team needs a player to slow things down, put his foot on the ball, but that won’t work now, it’s no longer possible. Due to Barcelona, also Mainz, Freiburg, Borussia Dortmund and Swansea, it has influence on everything. It’s a way to educate young players. The players are no longer individual circus artists. Johan Cruyff once said that the team with the best 11 individuals will always win but Dortmund have shown that’s not true. Tactics play a more important role than five years ago.

What happened to the tactics against Dudelange?

I think we must have some kind of Champions League curse. That first experience with Dudelange was a disaster because it should never have happened. Looking back, I don’t know if our whole development would have been so rapid if we hadn’t lost that game. Last year we dropped out against Fenerbahçe, and that was very unlucky: we were the better team in both legs but there was something lacking; we did not have enough experience when we were 1-0 up at home and conceded late on. Again we were 1-0 up in Istanbul and lost 3-1. This year was the year when everyone thought, “If we don’t make it this year, we never will make it.” We were 2-0 up against Malmö, Kevin Kampl had missed a few one-on-ones and then they scored in the last minute. It was a long ball, the goalkeeper thought it was his ball, a defender headed it out of his hands and the ball fell to the striker and it was 2-1. But conceding an away goal in the last minute, it’s like conceding two goals… Then we had problems we had with Sadio Mané before the second leg and, looking back now, that was decisive: he didn’t turn up the day before, he didn’t show up for training as he was so desperate to leave and he was afraid no-one would come up with the right offer, so he didn’t play. We had another two or three players injured and we lost that game 3-0, and deservedly so. We didn’t perform on the night.

What was the reaction after that defeat?

We were almost paralysed for three or four weeks. It took me at least five or six days to get back to normal business and take something useful from that experience. We lost three games in a row in the league, which has never happened before, but then finally we turned things around. We beat Dinamo Zagreb 5-1 in Croatia and beat Celtic 3-1 at Celtic Park, so we did get back to playing Red Bull football again.

So the target next year is obvious: Champions League group stage?

I don’t know. Mané left, Kampl left. We have young players ready to take the next step. This is the normal result of the change in our transfer policy: because we sign players who are signing their first or second contracts so when they are ready for the next step, we have to let them go, if you get the right offer. Our next players must be in the pipeline already. Our reserve team has the youngest average age in Europe, 19.3, and they are second in the league and hopefully some of them will be in the first team next season. We will probably make the Champions League when no-one thinks we will qualify, when we are underdogs. Before Malmö, no-one thought we would lose to that team. We saw ourselves as clear favourites in those two legs. That made losing more difficult.

How can an Austrian club compete at that level?

FC Basel in Switzerland shows how to do it. The advantage they have, even though they have been successful in recent years, is that no matter who they play, they are underdogs. I would be convinced that with the team we have in Salzburg, although it sounds strange, if we had qualified [for the group stage], we would have had a chance of staying in the competition after Christmas. Now our ambition is to go as far as possible in the Europa League – we were top in our group – and hopefully go further than last season. We have two strikers who can score 30 goals this season – Jonathan Soriano and Alan – and a young Belgian, Massimo Bruno, who is set for the top. But we can look at what Basel have done in the last 10 years; they have been doing a great job. What is possible in Switzerland must be possible for a club like ours.

What’s been the reaction from the rest of German football to the success in Leipzig?

Supporters of big traditional clubs don’t like us, as they fear we might take away one of their places. But officials of the other clubs have realised we do things in a special way. For example, we were the only club in the second division who didn’t sign a player from another second-division club and we did the same last season with third-division clubs. Experience-wise, our players have the lowest number of minutes played at first or second division level. This has been acknowledged. We have to differentiate between other fans who emotionally don’t like us, the media and other sports directors and coaches, as they realise we do it in a different way. Some people try to reduce it by saying we have more money available, which is true, but the question is, how do we use that money? What are we doing with it? We have invested in the staff to get best possible people to work with the players and then we try to give them blue chips, highly talented young players who can be trained in those surroundings and developed into top-class players. Joshua Kimmich is a good example. He was an Under-19 player at Stuttgart that not many people knew and Stuttgart themselves thought he should play in the Under-19 team although they had a reserve team in the same league as ours. We found a solution with Stuttgart and he joined our club. Not only did he play every game last season, but he was one of our best players. He was in the Under-19 Germany side that won the European title and has been called to the Under-21 squad. [In January 2015, Bayern Munich signed Kimmich for €7.5m on a pre-contract agreement.] Yussuf Poulsen is another example: a striker we scouted for six months in Denmark and we persuaded him to join us in division three and he’s still with us too.

Do you get frustrated with the debate about traditional clubs?

Football clubs are now businesses, whether you like it or not. There is a German second division side near the top of the league, Ingolstadt, which is owned by Audi. The difference between them and us is that their average attendance is 7,000 and ours is almost four times that. I am convinced that if we get to the Bundesliga, our stadium will be sold out every home game. We will also be one of the teams that brings the most away fans with them. That’s another reason why it won’t be bad if Leipzig gets promoted.

If Leipzig are promoted to the Bundesliga, life will be more complicated for you. Can you be sporting director of two top-flight clubs?

No, but that was clear from day one. If they are both in the top divisions, then I can only be sporting director of one of them, for two reasons. Theoretically, both clubs could qualify for Europe and we want both clubs to be able to play in European competitions. It would not be possible if I was sports director for both clubs. I’d have to decide and it’s clear I would then focus on Leipzig. Time-management right now is difficult, with Leipzig in the second division. I cannot be in both places at the same time.

How valuable is it to have gone through something similar with Hoffenheim?

Of course it’s valuable to have that experience, to know what’s important, which screws to use – but every season and every team is a different situation. You have to prepare each team properly – we have the experience to know what to do in special situations, if the pressure increases, and if we don’t win for three or four games in a row, the coach knows he has a sporting director who understands what it’s like. We are pretty proud that in two and a half years, we’ve not sacked a single coach in either team. Okay, we lost Roger Schmidt to Bayer Leverkusen but that’s part of the DNA of our job: if we allow our players to take the next step I can’t tell the coach that he has to stay as well. We have to be ready to have the next coach as well.

You spent years as coach and being hands-on with the players, so on a personal level, how do you cope having taken a step back? Are you tempted to coach again?

No, because I appreciate what I can do in my current job. It’s very difficult to imagine where another club can offer me the same conditions I have now, and it’s a great privilege. For the first three or four months, it was pretty difficult. I still think and watch games as a former coach. It was not easy to see the line that I should not cross, but there were some situations, maybe after Dudelange I crossed that line, but now I know where the line is. I can give the coach advice and pass on a note at half-time, but then it’s up to them. They are the ones with the responsibility and they have to decide what to do. Physically and mentally I have never been in as good shape as I am today. So I do not really think about doing something different. I currently have a very high job satisfaction.