Manchester United host Crystal Palace at Old Trafford in the Premier League on Sunday. Thanks to a 3-2 win over Arsenal on Thursday, United now sit seventh in the league, three points off fourth and 12 behind leaders Chelsea. Palace are five points behind United in eleventh and without a win in their last three.
Over the last fortnight, United have lost 4-1 away to Watford, sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, appointed Michael Carrick as caretaker, and hired Ralf Rangnick. Carrick has diligently steered United through important wins against Villarreal away, securing more Champions League football this season, and Arsenal in the league, along with a competent performance and point from Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Carrick announced in his post-match interview after the Arsenal victory, in typically modest and graceful fashion, that he would be leaving the club effective immediately to spend time with his family following a whirlwind coaching role and 15 years at the club as player and staff. Carrick kept this bombshell from the squad but discussed his intentions with Rangnick who could not persuade the former United midfielder to continue his work under the new regime. Carrick departs with an unbeaten, albeit short and temporary, stint as United manager, and on a relative high providing a welcome transition from Solskjaer to Rangnick.
Helpfully, Rangnick needn’t then reference Solskjaer too heavily in his first interview and press conference which started early on Friday morning. There may be clichés with the German kicking off proceedings at 9am sharp, but Rangnick avoided trite soundbites even when declaring the United job impossible to turn down and rejecting Chelsea. Rangnick was personable, eloquent, and spoke with calm and authoritative intelligence. Rangnick’s only apparent agenda seemed to be a genuine desire to focus on and get down to work. United may have finally appointed a serious contemporary manager obsessed solely with improving the team and structure of the club, and United, for the first time in nearly a decade, are willing and ready to listen.
"You always have to adapt to the players you have. Seeing Ronaldo at 36 — I have never seen anyone as fit at 36," Ralf continues.— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 3, 2021
"But it's not just about him, it's about developing the squad as a whole." #MUFC
For the players – and the board – it is now time to work and pay attention. Remove all clown shoes and place them in the nearest charity bin. Reassurance was given that Rangnick won’t be making United fit into off-the-shelf ideas, instead, Rangnick will tailor his methods to United and their personnel. It will be fascinating to see how the weeks unfold – and without many days in between matches to work towards Rangnick’s blueprint for United on the training ground.
Rangnick: "We won’t have that much training time, because we play every three days, so it’s about video footage, using video material as an important tool to develop the team, train the brains and at the same time encourage the players to do the right things." #mulive [mu]— utdreport (@utdreport) December 3, 2021
United have another seven games this month, six in the league, while Rangnick gets his feet under the table. United don’t play any of the top sides until March. It represents an enviable run of fixtures for a new manager, though thick and fast over the next few weeks before the new year – and ones where United have struggled to regularly impose themselves on in recent years.
Would be a big call to drop David de Gea on Sunday. Rangnick doesn’t come across as someone who would want to make unnecessary statement changes right off the bat for his own ego or to mask inferiority. However, at Old Trafford is where United would benefit most from Dean Henderson commanding his area and the Reds’ next two matches are at home.
Rangnick: "The major target for me is to bring more balance into the team. We conceded two [against Arsenal], needed three to win the game. It's just too much per game. My approach is to bring more balance, more control to the game." #mulive— utdreport (@utdreport) December 3, 2021
Rangnick immediately highlighted United’s chaotic nature and inability to control games. Giving the defence a platform to dominate, rather than continually looking over their shoulders putting out fires, would go a long way in support of this aim.
Perhaps the safer and more diplomatic option is to give Henderson a start against Young Boys at home on Wednesday, where United have already qualified from their Champions League group, and then make the call. Rangnick revealed, though, that he has been watching United closely, even before being sought for the position, and likely will have identified De Gea as an ongoing issue.
Plenty of backtracking from United’s fanbase over Fred who has thrived lately in United’s midfield. At Old Trafford on Thursday, Fred was involved in almost everything and his reputation at United hasn’t been higher.
Scott McTominay, meanwhile, is the current source of fans’ frustrations with central midfield, and Fred has shown enough to warrant prioritising over others. Who Rangnick thinks will complement the Brazilian, to provide the balance he is immediately seeking, remains to be seen – and whether McTominay’s issues and limitations can be coached out of him sufficiently to be a regular starter this season.
A timely goal for United’s talisman on Thursday night against Arsenal who has been struggling in recent weeks. Rangnick will want to get the best use out of Cristiano Ronaldo but building the team around Bruno Fernandes effectively is probably the more pressing issue. Whether that means Fernandes staying as a no. 10 and United sticking with 4-2-3-1, dropping back and featuring in a three in midfield, or playing off Ronaldo in a 4-2-2-2, we will find out. Rangnick could also do worse than make the infectious Portuguese his new captain.
Set up Fred, who teed up Fernandes, from the left beautifully just before half-time erasing Arsenal’s fortuitous opener when De Gea was crumpled and immobile on the goalline. It was a crucial goal at a crucial time for United, and Jadon Sancho unlocked the opportunity. Sancho has arrived, finally, providing key moments in United’s last three – and there is surely much more to come as his stock and confidence rise. Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial may all be fighting for one spot.
Solskjaer’s superstar project has fallen off the radar even before the Norwegian departed, and then with Covid, but the good thing about young players is their ability to adapt to change and take on new instruction quickly. Greenwood may get one or two chances as cover for Ronaldo this season with Edinson Cavani reportedly wanting away as soon as January.
Greenwood may also get taught the art of defending as a forward and, should he respond well, could provide more competition for Rashford who has looked subpar in several instances since returning from injury. While Carrick had too little time to play with, what Rangnick makes of Greenwood is another fascinating subplot at the beginning of a new era for United.