One morning last week I spent a good deal of time talking with fellow writer Suwaid about the direction Ralf Rangnick was looking to take the club. This was prior to the Brentford match so frustrations were understandable.
Our frustrations were based around that it seemed like Rangnick was just running through the same (failed) ideas that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been trying this season that we knew didn’t work.
Solskjaer learned long ago that Nemanja Matic-Scott McTominay midfield pair was not feasible. This season he tried a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 with Nemanja Matic at the base (vs Leicester) and saw that it only worked for about 70 minutes before the wheels fell off. He tried a 4-3-3 with Scott McTominay sitting deep against Valencia and immediately saw how chaotic that was. At the end of last season and early this season we saw that any strengths of a Victor Lindelof-Eric Bailly or Lindelof-Raphael Varane defensive partnership don’t outweigh the weaknesses of it, and that’s likely the reason Solskjaer rushed a not fully fit Maguire back into the team against Leicester.
Over the past five games alone, Rangnick has tried all these things. As soon as he played a real team he saw that a Matic-McTominay pair was no bueno. The 4-3-3 with Matic sitting deep worked for 70 minutes before he got tired and Villa were able to tie things up. Against Brentford he started in a 4-3-3 with McTominay deep and it was such a train wreck that he wisely moved the team back into a 4-2-3-1 at halftime. It’s almost as if that might not have been Solskjaer’s preferred formation but the one he realized United needed to play given their personnel.
It’s been frustrating watching Rangnick run through all these ideas (again) but it makes sense. WE watch the team every week, and have been for years. WE know what doesn’t work.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first took over he proudly stated that he was still a United fan and had never stopped closely following the club. When he arrived at Old Trafford he did what pretty much every fan would have done. He shipped Fellaini off to China, sent McTominay down to the U23s, and told Antonio Valencia he wasn’t coming back next year. Then he looked at the team and said “we’ve got these young exciting players in Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard work their asses off and Paul Pogba is a superstar, therefore I’m just going to play them.”
But Rangnick isn’t a Manchester United fan. Why would he have been following United when he was working at Lokomotiv Moscow? When he got here, he didn’t know what didn’t work. He wasn’t helped when the assistant coaches who worked with Solskjaer and Rangnick wanted to keep around all left. He was going to need to learn this all for himself.
Rangnick ran through all the bad ideas and with the halftime switch to a 4-2-3-1 and later a 3-5-2 he finally got back to square one. On Saturday he was able to finally try something new.
Well, sort of.
Against West Ham Rangnick went to a tactic that was often used by Solskjaer with pretty good success. Sort of.
Ever since Project Restart we’ve seen Nemanja Matic split the centerbacks to form a back three during buildup whenever he plays. Matic splitting the centerbacks allowed the fullbacks to push up higher while giving more space to Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes to progress and create.
United would play this way whenever they played with the Matic-Pogba pivot. They also played with this tactic/formation in their two Europa League matches that season with Fred coming in in place of Matic.
Oddly though, with the exception of parts of their project restart match against Crystal Palace, United never played this way with Scott McTominay. Sure there were times (notably Aston Villa away last season) they would have McTominay drop to right center back to form a back three, but this seemed more to just simplify the game for McTominay and if the ball was on the right side of the pitch, the move wasn’t open. Ultimately it was a pretty rarely used tactic, which was odd.
I just always found it amazing last season how United would start Pogba-Matic and Matic would drop in buildup to give Pogba+Bruno space. Then the next game they'd start McFred and in buildup they'd stay in a line together essentially ruling them both out of the play#MUFC— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) January 24, 2022
On Saturday that (finally) changed. Off the ball United looked like they might come back out in a 4-1-4-1 but quickly settled into a 4-2-3-1.
In possession they got rid of the clunkiness the McFred pivot causes by (finally) having McTominay split the two centerbacks during buildup.
This essentially created a 3-4-3 in possession.
McTominay forming a back three gave United a good base to work from. The fullbacks, who aren’t great at progression, were able to push up higher. The midfield was more open for Bruno Fernandes to get on the ball and pull the strings. All the while United still had a solid foundation at the back to prevent counter attacks and defend transitions.
The difference between Matic dropping into a back three and McTominay, is when Matic did it, he was creating space for Bruno and Paul Pogba. On Saturday, McTominay was creating space for Bruno and Fred, which can immediately have it’s drawbacks thanks to Fred’s inconsistencies. You might get the Fred vs Aston Villa who (per FBref) had seven shot-creating actions and an xA of 0.4. Or you might get the Fred vs Brentford who had four shot-creating actions and an xA of 0.6. Or you might get the Fred we got on Saturday who doesn’t offer much creatively. The definition of inconsistency.
Mix all those factors together and the result was United looking more like their previous selves (IE the United of the past two years, when missing Paul Pogba) than at any other point this season. They had good structure, they didn’t allow West Ham any opportunities.
If you need specific games to compare this to, look no further than the pair of 1-0 wins United picked up over West Ham at Old Trafford last year. In the FA Cup they held the Hammers to just three shots over 120 minutes of football. A month later in the the league West Ham managed seven shots for an xG of just 0.7 (or 0.46 per understat).
But as good as they were defensively, they couldn’t do anything in possession. In the FA Cup United needed a 107th minute goal to get through. In the league they secured the three points via an own goal coming from a corner. Notably that’s the last time United have scored from a corner kick.
On Saturday, United ran into the same problems they often ran into over the past two seasons when Paul Pogba wasn’t in the team. The lack of ball progressers meant that Bruno was dropping deep to handle those duties. When Bruno drops deep, not only is he not getting on the ball in areas that make him more dangerous, but he’s progressing the ball to players who aren’t creative.
Up top United had Cristiano Ronaldo flanked by Anthony Elanga and Mason Greenwood. A striker who requires service to be effective flanked by two natural strikers who’s first instinct is to cut inside and shoot. Greenwood has started moving around the pitch and adding more creative elements to his game recently, but his comical refusal to pass to Ronaldo (and Ronaldo’s even stronger refusal to create for Greenwood) severely lowers the potency of United’s attack.
It goes in both directions:— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) January 24, 2022
CR7 has 2.60 SCA per 90 when on the pitch with Greenwood this year. He has made the primary pass to set up a MG shot ONCE.
One secondary pass, two SCAs from Greenwood getting rebounds to CR7 shots. 0.42 SCA/90 from CR7>MG@brentmaximin's parallel play
When your three shoot first strikers are being supported by Diogo Dalot, who’s biggest creative trait is “more creative than Wan-Bissaka” and Alex Telles who isn’t going to give you anything more than a nice looking cross, you’re not going to create much. After 81 minutes United had taken 14 shots but had an xG of just 0.60 (0.04 xG per shot).
Searching for a winner Rangnick brought on two more strikers and dropped the “McTominay splitting the centerbacks” tactics in exchange for... Bruno dropping back as the deepest midfielder.
Logically the idea makes a lot of sense, dropping Bruno deep puts him next to Harry Maguire so United’s two best ball progressers can do exactly that.
The move also allows McTominay to push up the pitch to hopefully do what he does best, shoot from the top of the box or make runs into the box where he can be an aerial pest.
This setup isn’t without it’s flaws either. Your best creator is now nowhere near the box. McTominay isn’t creative at all and can’t pick out tight passes from the top of the box, while Dalot and Telles are still Dalot and Telles. All this leads to having four strikers/finishers on the pitch and no one to create for them. Not surprisingly, over the next 10 minutes the only half decent chance United created came from the one time Bruno got himself near the box.
It looked like that was going to be it from United. A lack of creativity would be their undoing. At 91 minutes they had outshot West Ham 17-6 but the xG was only 0.82-0.24.
Luckily West Ham still had a few mistakes in them. Like a very heavy touch from Jarrod Bowen and a poor header from Ryan Fredericks
and suddenly, United are able to get the ball to their forwards in transition with space to run at the defenders, which is exactly what these guys are REALLY really good at. They only need one opportunity to make it count.
This is what you want to see under Rangnick. Rangnick’s style is about creating quick attacks after turnovers before the defense is set. Being able to get your forwards space to run at defenders. That’s always been the area where these guys have been so dangerous.
United may have gotten by by the skin of their teeth but ultimately this was a big positive for the team under Rangnick. They finally had full control of a match from start to finish, thanks to their structure both in and out of possession. They need to maintain that going forward but with Paul Pogba and (likely) Jadon Sancho set to return after the break, there’s real hope for United’s creativity to start rounding into shape as well.