Ralf Rangnick’s tenure as Manchester United’s interim manager got off to a positive start with a really fun 1-0 win. The three points were nice but it was the performance that had everyone buzzing. I
t is however only one game (against a decent but still bottom half side), and while we shouldn’t get carried away by it, the match still showed us plenty of good, some things that can - and will - be built upon, as well as some questions going forward.
When you talk about Ralf Rangnick the first thing you’re going to talk about is pressing. Pressing has been the big buzzword around United this season to the point that it’s constantly being talked about by mainstream pundits who have never really spoken about it before and naturally aren’t doing a good job explaining it. Their focus to always be on “he does it” or “he doesn’t do it” without actually explaining why doing it or not doing it matters (or doesn’t matter) and explaining what needs to happen.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter whether you press or not. Teams have had success employing either strategy. What matters is whatever you’re doing you do as a team, keep your shape, and stay compact.
Here’s a situation from the 3-2 win over Arsenal. United are ““pressing” high but they aren’t compact at all. No one is particularly close to an Arsenal player, and just look at how much distance is between Ronaldo and central midfielder Fred! You can’t even see the back four in this picture!
This is a terrible setup and it should be very easy for Arsenal to break this “press.” The “press” works, solely because of the athleticism and stellar play of Fred. That’s obviously not what you want.
On Sunday, United were credited with 155 pressures (per Fbref via Statsbomb), the most they’ve had in a match since... Chelsea two weeks prior. It’s not about having players running around and closing down opponents, United have always done that, it’s about doing this as a team. The number we should be looking at is their 55 pressure regains, meaning they were successful on 36.7 percent of their pressures. That is their highest number of the season.
That comes from working as a team. Everyone does their part, it’s not just someone running to close down the ball, but taking the right angle to close him down to block off a pass while the players behind him close down the potential receivers.
It’s not just the work from the front, but the defense positioning as well. Too often this season United’s back four has been incredibly deep, so when United’s forward have pressed, the fullbacks have a lot of distance to cover and thus they don’t get there in time.
By starting high your fullbacks are able to push right up on the wingers, so United’s forwards can force the ball wide, the midfielders block off the passes to the middle, and eventually you trap them out wide.
1A. Ronaldo’s buy in
The topic of pressing has obviously come up a lot this season because of the return of Cristiano Ronaldo, a man who famously doesn’t press. Again, whether Ronaldo presses or not is irrelevant, what matters is that the whole team has to be on the same page and you need to keep your shape.
That often hasn’t happened this season and it’s caused other players to have to work harder, but also essentially reduces United to 10 men which causes United to get stretched out and eventually picked through. Such as this sequence against Leicester where instead of potentially trapping the ball, Ronaldo keeps moving away from the ball while his teammates chase it and eventually a gap opens.
If you’re going to press you need all 10 outfield players to take an active part. That part is crucial. United don’t need Ronaldo to be Roberto Firmino or the best defensive forward out there, they just need him to do a singular job; when the time comes, run.
They don’t need him to run up and down all over the pitch. We’re talking running in very short bursts but it makes a huge difference. Here Ronaldo is jogging, jogging, jogging, but once the goalkeeper passes to his left he breaks into a sprint to close down the defender.
It’s really small but it makes the whole play. With Ronaldo bearing down on him the defender makes a poor pass and McTominay is able to swoop in and intercept. If Ronaldo simply jogs, the defender easily completes the pass.
It’s not just about running, but simply looking like you’re playing the part.
Here Ronaldo misplaces a pass to Rashford. Often times we see players (this is not exclusive to Roanldo) get frustrated that they miss this pass and take a second or two to lash out at the sky while the game moves by them. Instead Ronaldo immediately gets back into a defensive position and looks ready to defend. That act alone takes options away from the ball carrier and with nowhere to go he lofts a hopeful long ball and United regain possession.
On those two plays alone Ronaldo runs about a combined 15 yards and causes two turnovers. You don’t need him to be Bruno or Cavani for things to work, you just need him to play his part.
In regards to playing his part a lot’s been made about ‘other players doing his running for him’ with pundits citing how Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez did this for him back in 2008. That’s all well and good but as soon as someone does Ronaldo’s running for him, someone else has to cover for that player and so on and so forth. Somewhere in that chain Ronaldo has to be doing something.
Here Bruno Fernandes pushes up to the striker position to do Ronaldo’s running for him. But after that, Ronaldo never fills in for Bruno in the no. 10 spot to pick up the midfielder, making it very easy for Leicester to cut right through United.
On Sunday, United weren’t all out pressing. Often times they’d sit back and let Crystal Palace carry the ball towards the halfway line until they saw something that triggered the press. (The fact that everyone was on the same page regarding the triggers was a positive in itself). Here Ronaldo isn’t working hard but he doesn’t have to be because he’s keeping the shape. When the trigger comes Rashford launches into the press as does Sancho and they do Ronaldo’s running for him.
Ronaldo doesn’t have to move much as he goes from being the furthest player forward to now being in the second line but crucially he stays with the man and does the job thats required of a player in the second line of the press. Palace have no options and ultimately kick a long ball right back to United.
2. Keeping Ronaldo in position
When discussing Ronaldo this season all the focus has been on the defensive side of the ball and not in possession. Ronaldo is the best player in the world at putting the ball in the net. That’s what you want him to do, get in the box and score goals. Unfortunately this season, he’s spent far too much time not doing that.
Take this play against Atalanta where Ronaldo links play and gets the ball out wide to Shaw but instead of turning and running forward he just... follows Shaw.
United already have Rashford there to help Shaw on the wing. Shaw has to hold up as he looks up and sees that, there’s no one attacking the middle. Precisely where your center forward should be!
Ronaldo likes to roam around the pitch in search of the ball - often drifting over to the left side - in search of the ball. Unfortunately he hasn’t been doing much with the ball. His xG Buildup now stands at a respectable 0.19, but heading into the Watford match it was a paltry 0.09, while his shot-creating actions per 90 are at a meager 2.78.
That’s not a problem per say, you don’t need Cristiano Ronaldo to be creating shots or moving the ball up the pitch. The team has plenty of creators in Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho, and Luke Shaw who can do that. You want Ronaldo to be in goal scoring positions so they can get him the ball there.
But when Ronaldo drops into that left half space he starts occupying other players positions and bringing extra defenders towards them. Paul Pogba thrived on the left wing late last season and started brilliantly there this year. It only took two games with Ronaldo and him occupying the same space to see that wasn’t going to work. Jadon Sancho also loves to operate in the half space but when Ronaldo drops there he’s forced to operate as a touch line winger, something he’s not as effective as when playing on the left side.
Playing Ronaldo in a split striker formation helps, but if you’re not strict with him about roaming around he’s still going to do it. Obviously he was given instructions prior to this match as his average position went from the left drifting maps we’ve grown accustomed to
To staying very central
Staying in the middle allows him to be a target man to help advance the ball and create for others
While also being at or in the box where he’s the most dangerous. And if he’s being where he’s most dangerous then he’s not drifting into other players space, which allows them to be at their most dangerous as well.
The Building Blocks
Control but no creativity
There are two reasons to press teams. Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund sides were known for pressing as to win the ball back closer to the opponents goal and create quick scoring opportunities. On the other side of things is Pep Guardiola. Guardiola’s teams press a ton, but that’s more to simply win the ball back so that you don’t have it. They’re not necessarily looking to strike quickly.
On Sunday’s United’s press allowed them to establish control of the match - something Rangnick very much values as he talked about it over and over again in his introductory press conference last Friday. United’s pressing wasn’t so much done to win the ball back high up the pitch, but simply to win the ball back and not let Crystal Palace launch attacks.
As Palace players knew they were going to be closed down quickly they started rushing their passes and just heaving long balls up the pitch for Maguire and Lindelof to regain possession. They were never able to get settled and because of that, even when they weren’t under pressure they began uncharacteristically missing simple passes. United held Palace to eight shots with an xG of just 0.75 (FotMob) and an open play xG of just 0.49.
As good as United looked off the ball, they didn’t seem to know what to do on it. For all the control and possession they had, they didn’t turn it into much. United mustered just 0.9 xG on 17 shots, a paltry 0.06 xG per shot. Even more concerning was the four shots in the second half and only created two shots from open play after Jadon Sancho was removed.
The difference between one point and three was a moment of individual brilliance - something that’s not so different from the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era - albeit this time from the unlikely source of Fred.
This isn’t something to get too concerned about. Jurgen Klopp’s first match in charge of Liverpool finished 0-0, as did Mauricio Pochettino’s first match in charge of Southampton. The logic being that the managers focused the majority of their first few days on the training ground focused on pressing that they never got around to working on what to do with the ball. That or the players were simply too tired from pressing to really launch attacks.
Rangnick mentioned that he was surprised at how quickly the players picked up their pressing responsibilities considering they only spent 45 minutes on the training ground and spent the rest of the time in meetings. That comment itself was a bit weird considering this has always been an extremely coachable team. One of United’s arguably two best performances last year (Spurs away) came after the club returned late from Grenada and didn’t even step onto the training pitch. Furthermore throughout Solskjaer’s tenure - and often when his back was against the wall - the team would have very distinct tactical plans for specific matches.
In other words, when a game plan was put in place the players have shown the ability to understand their roles quickly and perform. That ability was always there, and having a better coach simply means the players will now be enacting better plans.
The word sustainability was thrown around often this year and I know many are tired of it but it definitely needs to be asked, how sustainable is it for United to play this way? The first 30 minutes on Sunday were fantastic but there was a clear drop-off after that. You don’t have to look much further than timing of United’s shots to see it.
That drop-off is completely expected. This was only the first match so United’s fitness levels are certainly not going to be ready to handle 90 minutes of Ralf-ball.
But that begs the question, when will they be able to develop those fitness levels? Fitness works is primarily done in the preseason. Rangnick is taking over with a favorable run of fixtures but also the busiest part of the season. The first team had a match off this week thanks to a dead rubber in the Champions League, and they have an open week later in the month due to not playing in the League Cup, but other than that it’s two matches a week as we hit the busiest part of the year. Most fitness training is going to be devoted to recovery right now rather than development.
It’s impossible not to think back to December 2018 when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over. Solskjaer took over a team that didn’t press and instantly turned them into one of the highest pressing teams in the league. United won a bunch of games but eventually the demand of the high pressing got to them and injuries started to creep in. Those who didn’t get injured were exhausted and United fell apart.
It’s impossible not to worry about that happening again. Rangnick though does inherit a better situation. Solskjaer demanded higher fitness levels than Mourinho did so the baseline of the players at this point of the year is already better than it was. Rangnick also inherits a squad that is much deeper in the attacking ranks than Solskjaer had, as well as in defense.
The concern would be in midfield where Solskajer had the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, 29 year old Nemanja Matic (who found the fountain of youth when OGS first took over), Andreas Pereira (I’m laughing too but he contributed during their winning run), Fred (a worse version of him), and Scott McTominay to call upon. Rangnick has Fred, McTominay, and maybe once a week Matic. It’ll be interesting to see how he uses Paul Pogba when he comes back but it’s hard not to see him slotting in as one of the duel number 10s. Donny van de Beek played as a number 6 against Young Boys but once again showed that he’s not a good midfielder.
All in all it was only one game but there’s a lot of reasons to be excited for the rest of this season.