There has long been familiar faces among the Old Trafford coaching staff. From Ryan Giggs to Michael Carrick to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United have been keen to maintain the link between players and coaches. However, the appointment of Ralf Rangnick as interim manager hints at a different approach.
Rangnick is just one of the new faces United fans will have to become familiar with and Chris Armas, announced as the club’s new assistant coach following the exit of Carrick, is another. The former USA midfielder has been out of work since leaving Toronto FC in Major League Soccer in July, and is, on the surface, a left-field choice. Few in Premier League circles had heard of him before his arrival at Old Trafford.
Armas and Rangnick, however, have history together. The new Manchester United interim manager was head of sport and development for Red Bull’s football operations while Armas was head coach of the New York Red Bulls between 2018 and 2020.
Appointed to give Manchester United wings, Rangnick is seemingly keen to replicate many of the ideas that worked so well for him as the architect of the Red Bull football empire. The arrival of Armas at the club is just another sign of how the German will seek to put his own stamp on a club in desperate need of a new direction, as is the hiring of former RB Leipzig sports psychologist Sascha Lense.
For MLS fans, the sight of Armas in the dugout of one of the world’s biggest clubs will be jarring. While the former midfielder lifted the Supporters’ Shield (the trophy handed to the team with the best regular-season record in MLS) as New York Red Bulls head coach, his managerial career on the other side of the Atlantic isn’t exactly held in the highest regard.
The strong pillars put in place at New York Red Bulls by Jesse Marsch, who Armas worked with as an assistant before replacing midway through the 2018 season, were eroded. The Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield in 2018, but in Armas’ only full season at the helm, in 2019, the team finished sixth in the Eastern Conference, their joint-lowest finish in 10 years. He parted ways with the club after a difficult start to the 2020 season. The regression was undeniable.
A six-month spell as Toronto FC head coach in 2021 was even more troublesome. He took over a team that had finished second in the Eastern Conference and had grown accustomed to challenging for honours in recent seasons. But under Armas their start to the campaign was terrible and he left on the back of a 7-1 loss to DC United, the worst defeat in the team’s history.
In New York, Armas was given the benefit of the doubt by some due to the club’s relatively modest budget compared to that of some of their rivals. He might have inherited Marsch’s team, but RBNY continued to play a brand of dynamic, high-pressing soccer under Armas. What’s more, they had a better record in the second half of 2018, (after Marsch left) even if 2019 witnessed a dramatic dip in performance levels. At Toronto FC, though, Armas flatlined at a club with one of the highest payrolls in the league, and he might struggle to find another head coach job in MLS because of it.
But there are reasons to think Armas can thrive at Old Trafford. The skillset to be a successful assistant manager is very different to that of a successful manager and it’s possible Armas has the people skills to act as an effective liaison between Rangnick and his new players at Manchester United. This is, after all, a role he performed for a number of years before becoming a head coach.
Indeed, Armas’s social skills have been praised by players who have worked under him. The former New York Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty told the Athletic that: “Chris cares about people deeply. He wants to foster and establish relationships that go beyond the soccer field. As an athlete, I can tell you that’s one of the most valuable assets that an assistant coach can have – or any coach for that matter. It doesn’t surprise me that Ralf would want someone like that on his staff.”
Much of the discussion around Rangnick’s appointment at Old Trafford has revolved around his ‘Gegenpressing’ ideology and how Manchester United will be expected to play a more proactive, high-pressing game under the German. Armas, as an assistant, was a key figure alongside Marsch in implementing a similar style of play at the New York Red Bulls. Regression only happened when Armas was left in sole charge, but he will have the more experienced Rangnick to guide things in England.
For Rangnick to be truly influential, Manchester United must give him the freedom to reshape the club. They must trust the German to make the right decisions for the future and that includes allowing him to pick a backroom staff that best reflect his philosophy. If Armas helps Rangnick communicate his ideas more clearly, that can only be a good thing for United. This is a club that has learned the hard way that good players don’t always make good managers and now they are making a bet that bad managers don’t always make bad assistants.