The frisson of excitement following Ralf Rangnick’s appointment has dissipated a little following a dour performance at St. James’ Park. It’s always panic stations when following Manchester United and while some of the concerns from the performance and selections were warranted, United are still in a good position to make top-4. This is now the primary objective for the rest of the season.
Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking, United have played seven games in all competitions and not lost any of them. It’s bought Rangnick some time to get his methods across but there’s a fragile confidence about the camp right now that’s even allowed relegations stragglers to take a bite.
In the month of October, we published a piece that foreshadowed the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It was just before the Leicester game and the difficult run proved to be fatal for the Norwegian.
This writer believes that the next two league games could be the most important of the season. United’s North London rivals for the top-4 spots will be facing each other in January. Arsenal also face champions Manchester City on New Year’s Day while Antonio Conte’s rejuvenated Spurs side will be facing Chelsea towards the end of next month.
The next two games aren’t going to spell the end for the interim boss if things go awry but could spell the end for United’s dwindling league season aspirations if they don’t get six points.
Win the games and it could also just as easily pull every concerned stakeholder of the club out of the dreary aura that has enveloped the club in the last couple of months.
Let’s look into why there’s still much to be hopeful about but it has to be done quickly.
Home sweet home
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s greatest loyalists will always remind you of United’s 29-game unbeaten away run in the league during his tenure. If the last two away games in the league are anything to go by, United are unlikely to conjure up something as impressive as that run in the coming weeks. For now, they don’t have to.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer never really managed to make Old Trafford a fortress. Part of that’s likely to do with his reactive style that seemed to borrow heavily from Carlos Queiroz’s United. At a time where even the mid-table clubs try to play in a proactive manner, just having the better set of players was never likely to force the outcome in home games.
In our Rangnick piece, we mentioned why his football should find a home at Old Trafford. He might well have the opposite effect of Solskjaer in the immediacy going by his first 90 minutes at the Old Trafford dug-out. We’ve all checked the stats and how many times United won the ball back in the opposition half in the game against Palace. It wasn’t the pell-mell pressing of United’s last two games.
Palace changed tactics in the second half by trying to bypass the press with more direct balls but never really troubled David De Gea, fashioning their only real chance through a set-piece. Rangnick felt like the performance exceeded even his expectations and there’s a chance we see something on those lines repeat in the next two league games simply cause that’s what 75,000 fans can do.
However, despite all that territory, United’s xG in the game was a meagre 0.89 (Understat). United could not convert all that territory into good shots with the likes of Marcus Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo unable to find their feet in the box, ultimately leaving it to Fred to find the winner from range.
In the two away games, United did not dominate territory but there was some promise in the second-half against Newcastle thanks to one man, which brings us to the next part.
If there were any concerns about not creating chances for the forwards, Edinson Cavani put that to bed in 45 minutes last week. United have some of the best creators in Europe in Fernandes, Sancho, Pogba and Shaw. Diogo Dalot isn’t quite there but in recent weeks he’s shown that he can also help supplement the attack.
Cavani racked up 1.11 xG all by himself in those 45 mins. Similar excuses were made for Anthony Martial and other United forwards during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first season and it was actually Odion Ighalo that showed the Frenchman and his peers why attacking the box will always be key.
Donny van de Beek is the other player who can offer this threat in the box and it’ll be curious to see if Ragnick sees him as someone who can offer that. The Dutchman will be keen to start against Burnley with Fernandes suspended.
Going by Rangnick’s press conference before the Burnley game, Cavani didn’t feel ready yet but he should be fit enough to start the next game. The Uruguayan’s also someone who has never had any qualms about playing second fiddle. He could play with a partner but also gives Rangnick the option of playing with a lone forward.
This brings us to the final part.
The 4-2-2-2: Formation, personnel or both?
Rangnick’s team selection for the game against Newcastle wasn’t very reassuring. Mason Greenwood and Cristiano Ronaldo have been like oil and water all season, hearkening back to the days of younger Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Marcus Rashford’s been in the endless middle for some time. There’s more on Rashford from this piece in the summer.
Much has been made of the 4-2-2-2 formation but the personnel and combinations seem a bigger talking point. There are some inherent weaknesses to every formation and this one is quite narrow and demands width from the full-backs.
That should not be a concern unless Luke Shaw is left out for longer. Alex Telles has done a fine job in recent weeks but doesn’t really hold a candle to Shaw. The only selling point Telles had over Shaw was his set-piece ability and Shaw awakened that part of his game last season to become one of the most consistent performers in the United and England set-up.
Other than that, Paul Pogba’s probably been champing at the bit to get back because the double 10 role in the 4-2-2-2 is screaming for him. Cavani, Shaw and Pogba would add some much-needed quality to the formation and two of them should start in the coming games. In our Rangnick piece, we’d stated how he isn’t wedded to any formation and the 4-1-3-2 (plan A to Z) in the second half against Newcastle was a case in point.
There will be a winter break that’ll help Rangnick but playing catch-up is never easy. Rangnick needs to use the home advantage and the availability of some key players to click into gear in these two games before the break and lay a foundation for the rest of the season.
United have taken the red pill by appointing Rangnick. There’s no getting out of the rabbit hole now. Let’s hope that the Reds come out feeling ten feet tall and not very small in a week’s time.