Manchester United travel to Villa Park on Saturday for their Premier League fixture with Aston Villa. United sit seventh in the league, six points off fourth-placed West Ham, albeit two fewer games played. The table is a fair reflection for United, though, despite the uneven amount of fixtures played as those above with any deficit in matches would still keep United in seventh should they also win.
United have failed to make the best of their kind run of fixtures since Ralf Rangnick took charge, and still have another seven eminently winnable games before the Champions League returns in February. United will fly to Spain on 22 February to face Atlético Madrid, then have a month in March consisting of Manchester City, Tottenham, Atlético Madrid at home, and Liverpool. Much has been made of United’s continued malaise but you would suspect that performance levels and attitudes from players would suddenly be sharper facing those sides. Make of that what you will.
United knocked Villa out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 win on Monday and Steven Gerrard’s side will be gunning for revenge. Gerrard’s affection for United couldn’t be contained at Old Trafford as he acknowledged the Stretford End walking out with his new team.
Rangnick: "At least we know what the challenge will be and how they [Aston Villa] are playing — we also know we can beat them. Now is about the best possible performance in order to win again." #mulive— utdreport (@utdreport) January 14, 2022
Villa faded in the second half after giving United numerous problems in the first, and Rangnick reckons United have now got the measure of their opponents for Saturday. Last Friday, Rangnick set out some basic wishes from his players when facing questions from the media and, in the first 10-15 minutes against Villa, United were sprightly and organised. As so often happens, United faded badly but managed to stay in the game through luck as much as resilience.
Rangnick: "We’ve taken a few steps but not as quickly as I would have hoped and wanted it to be." #mulive— utdreport (@utdreport) January 14, 2022
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo is unhappy and is publicly calling out his teammates – justifiably, but so many of United’s problems and resolutions are aired and vowed in public. Fans would rather see efforts on the pitch and less noise outside of the club, as no doubt would the manager. Besides, there’s no getting away from Ronaldo’s primary concern being Ronaldo – and the subtext from his declaration just feels like ‘you’re making me look bad here’.
More grounded in reality, the recent disruptions to training and matches haven’t helped Rangnick or the players at the beginning of their time together. It feels too early to judge the interim manager fairly just yet if it isn’t already. Switching various formations to find the best solution with the current squad hasn’t been ideal, either, and without the consistent schedule of work. Still, Rangnick will need the results and performances soon otherwise a mauling from better teams lies in wait.
David de Gea
Dean Henderson is now wanting away after breaking into the team under Ole Gunnar Solskjær last season. Solskjaer typically fell back on David de Gea’s experience this season before being removed as manager, and Rangnick has fallen for the same mistake.
David de Gea's starting position when Victor Lindelof's poor touch happened yesterday vs Ollie Watkins' first touch on the ball.— Cain Smith (@cainsmithMU) January 11, 2022
The first touch is actually deeper than DDG's starting position, but he still retreats. pic.twitter.com/QqcLjhfKIA
De Gea is hailed as one of United’s star performers at the moment but is a huge blind spot for many. In most games, there is clear evidence that De Gea is hurting the team as much as he is saving them. Against Villa at Old Trafford, De Gea retreated from Victor Lindelöf’s mistake which could easily have been costly. And when Villa did score, but then VAR disallowed it for a block on Edinson Cavani, De Gea was ineffectively rooted to his line. Progress for United will not come with De Gea but Rangnick seems to have made his choice for this season at least.
Suffered a nasty cut on his ankle this week against Villa but finished the match – and will hopefully be available on Saturday to continue to offer an attacking option down United’s right.
An improved and unfazed display against Villa in the cup but still slowly returning to the required form after a period out with injury. United need Raphaël Varane at his assured best, but who partners the Frenchman will be most pertinent.
Phil Jones is in contention as he’s carefully reintroduced following a strong first game back at Wolves despite United losing 1-0. Harry Maguire may also be available, along with Lindelöf, if Maguire’s shaken off the innocuous and conveniently-timed chest injury that has kept him out of the squad for a fortnight.
Scott McTominay and Luke Shaw are suspended having both collected their fifth bookings of the competition against Wolves, and Rangnick will need to select another partner for Fred. Whether Nemanja Matić has recovered from recently playing two games in four days – a mistake Rangnick is unlikely to repeat – remains to be seen.
Rangnick on Donny van de Beek: "It's the same situation as Dean [Henderson]. I had a conversation with him two weeks ago and told him I would advise him to stay until the end of the season — with the World Cup coming up in the winter, he wants to play." #mulive— utdreport (@utdreport) January 14, 2022
But Matić is more likely to step in than Donny van de Beek. United must be confident of identifying and landing a major signing in central and defensive midfield in the summer to not have bothered so far this month.
United have several attacking players struggling at the moment. Marcus Rashford looks to be going through his worst spell at the club, mentally and physically. Rashford gave too much to Solskjær playing every week through injury for months and this, coupled with an uncertain return after surgery, has taken its toll on the 24-year-old forward.
For the first time, Rashford appears so unhappy with his football, and maybe the state of the club, that he could entertain the idea of walking away from United – unthinkable last season. Receiving boos from fans at Old Trafford on Monday won’t have helped his state of mind. Rashford is an exceptionally resilient young man and has overcome bigger challenges in his life. Hopefully Rashford’s heart is still in it at United as time is certainly on his side.
Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho both need consistent runs in the side to gain some momentum with their form but neither are being afforded that luxury or fully taking the chances when they arise. And then there’s Bruno Fernandes – United’s best player and driving force – attempting to crawl out of the worst period of his United career hampered by Ronaldo’s arrival and an unsuitable formation.
Rangnick allowed Fernandes to roam free against Villa this week – Fernandes will need to return the favour in performances should this continue. The alternative is Fernandes playing higher up off Ronaldo sacrificing Cavani. In any case, United’s fortunes over the coming weeks will depend on Fernandes finding his stride.