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Tactical Analysis: Ralf Rangnick has reshaped Manchester United; but into what exactly?

New tactical analysis on Ralf Rangnick’s squad experimentation as interim...

Manchester United v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

Since arriving to a team in disarray in early December Ralf Rangnick has slowly managed to somewhat right the ship. Results have still proven elusive but a look at Manchester United’s underlying numbers shows a stark improvement.

United’s non-penalty xG has gone from 1.36 per 90 under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season to 1.67, while their non-penalty xGA has dropped from 1.51 to 1.11, a stark 0.71 improvement in their non-penalty xG difference. The attack is creating more than in 20/21 and 19/20 and while defensively they’re also conceding more (1.03 xGA/90 2021, 0.92 xGA/90 2020), their npxG differential of +0.56 is a slight improvement over the previous two years (+0.34 in 20/21 and +0.36 in 19/20).

How has Rangnick managed to do this?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer set out to build a team that didn’t have a focal point number 9. The vision of his attack was one that was lead by a dynamic and interchanging front three. Off the ball they were compact defensively and typically defended as an 11 man unit.

That’s what made Edinson Cavani an interesting signing. He’s someone that works very hard off the ball but he’s a completely different profile of striker to what United had. It makes sense that it took United until around April to really get comfortable playing with him.

Cristiano Ronaldo most certainly does not fit that profile. We know earlier in his career he could be part of a dynamic interchanging attack but these days he’s not someone that facilitates play or creates for others. He’s someone that you get him the ball and he tries to score goals. And whereas Cavani was signed as a Plan B/spot starter, Ronaldo very much was not. He was going to be in the team, and if he’s in the team, you need to work around him.

Solskjaer did a horrific job trying to integrate Ronaldo in the team. He continuously flanked him with shoot-first wingers, who were at their best when they were able to interchange around the front three, rather than players who were bonafide shot-creators to try and create for Ronaldo. Ronaldo and Mason Greenwood never got on with the two actively going out of their way to avoid passing to each other. And we don’t even have to get started on their lack of work off the ball.

Yet Solskjaer continued to run that combination back and somehow wondered why it wasn’t working.

Out went Solskajer and in came Rangnick. The father of German Geggenpressing, a man with a very distinct tactical style.

The appointment was curious to say the least. Rangnick has hardly coached at the top level in the past decade. He is well regarded and highly respected, but he is not a highly decorated manager. Not to mention Ralf’s very distinct style involved a lot of pressing and off ball work, which let’s just say is not exactly a perfect match with your highest paid player and leading goalscorer.

Nevertheless, Rangnick tried to implement his geggenpressing style when he first arrived and at first, it looked good! In their opening match against Crystal Palace United were flying, with Ronaldo very much doing his part. They didn’t create much, but that was to be expected among a team learning a new style.

By the next two matches though, cracks were already starting to show. The 4-2-2-2 formation lead to several sequences that saw Ronaldo isolated 1v1 vs defenders outside the box where too often he either embarrassed himself or got embarrassed.

Soon he started reverting to his tendency to drop deeper on the pitch and not really offer anything of value.

The thing about the 4-2-2-2 was it moved a lot of players out of their best positions and thus limited their effectiveness. If the whole team was sacrificing something and it wasn’t working for Ronaldo either, then what was the point?

Rangnick was going to have to choose between his style or trying to get the best from his expensive striker. He naturally chose the latter.

Cristiano Ronaldo missed Saturday’s match against Leicester City due to illness where United once again dropped points at home. You know this already, because it’s impossible not to, but since Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford United have not won a single match that he hasn’t started.

That of course begs the question, where would United be without Ronaldo? The answer is, probably not here - but not necessarily worse!

The thing about that question is it’s a bit of a false misnomer. If Ronaldo wasn’t here, United probably wouldn’t be playing the way they’re playing right now. As mentioned earlier, Solskjaer’s vision was to build a team with a dynamic interchanging front three. United weren’t build around feeding the ball to a sole player who was tasked with carrying the bulk of their scoring.

Take a look at how United’s shots were distributed amongst the team over the past two seasons.
(Note: These numbers are not perfect calculations but they do give us a general overview of where United’s shots are coming from)

In Solskjaer’s first season the distribution is pretty evenly spread among the team in any given match. Last season Mason Greenwood and Bruno took a bit more of the shots but there’s still a pretty even distribution. That’s how you end up second in the league in scoring despite three of your four strikers having pretty poor seasons.

This season there’s been a notable difference.

You can already see a change in style. Cristiano Ronaldo comes in and suddenly United are taking more shots, with a much higher concentration being taken by one person. That’s not exactly surprising. There’s a much higher concentration of shots coming from the front three, but when you remember that those three guys were all shoot first players who didn’t exactly work together, a lot bad shots were taken.

Since Rangnick took over, Ronaldo’s shots increased as did his share of United’s overall shots. That list accounts for all of Rangnick’s tenure, which in the first half also featured a high volume shooter in Mason Greenwood. Now take a look at United’s shot distribution since Greenwood was removed from the first team.

Since Greenwood’s departure Ronaldo is averaging roughly a third of United’s shots per game. He’s taken just over 21 percent of their total shots in this period and he didn’t even play in two of the matches!

At the same time, United found their footing. Their non-penalty xG per 90 has jumped to 1.85 with the amount of shots staying almost the same (they’re getting much higher quality shots!). United had a non-penalty xG of at least 2.0 in five consecutive matches to start this period.

United had now fully become a team built around Ronaldo. They were no longer trying to press so to maximize their defensive output. In possession they weren’t sharing the wealth anymore but funneling their chances towards one central hub; Ronaldo.

There was just one problem. Ronaldo wasn’t scoring and as a result, United weren’t winning. They won just two of the five games in that run (and that’s not including the FA Cup clash against Middlesbrough where Opta had United’s xG above four with a missed penalty). During those five games Ronaldo had 25 shots for a total xG of 4.1. In other words, the average player would be expected to have scored four goals if given those same 25 shots. Ronaldo had one.

Ronaldo’s dry spell was quite literally costing United points as the whole team was playing to set him up. This was no longer a case of lack of service. Since Greenwood left the team Ronaldo had more chances created for him than any United player in the past three years. These weren’t just measly chances either, his 0.16 xG per shot in that time is higher than any season he’s had in his career.

Ronaldo missed the derby but finally delivered when he returned with a hat trick against Spurs to give United a 3-2 win. From a tactical standpoint, Ronaldo had to deliver that match. He took nine of United’s 11 shots. Their whole game plan was “feed Ronaldo.”

Rangnick has - for lack of a better term - effectively sold out. He’s not playing the brand of football he’s known for. Over his first few weeks in charge he assessed the squad and came to a decision that the club’s best chances of making the top four were to lean heavily into Ronaldo and let him carry you there. United have done that, they’re just now at the mercy of Ronaldo actually performing. Hat-trick’s get the headlines but a wider distribution of the four goals he’s scored since January could have seen United earn more points in the table.

The choice of building around Ronaldo also leads to one big problem. What do you do if Ronaldo isn’t available?

The answer to that isn’t as simple as what you would have done had Ronaldo never joined because Ronaldo did in fact join. If Ronaldo picks up a sudden knock in training, or in this case an illness, and isn’t available you can’t just go back to the way you used to play. The style of the team has changed, United don’t counter attack anymore, they don’t train to play in the same style as they previously did. The personnel has changed too, and even if they wanted to go back to the way they used to play it would be really difficult without Anthony Martial, who was one of the better strikers in the league at creating dangerous chances and facilitating play for his teammates.

You need to find as close to a like for like replacement as possible. United don’t have that. 35 year old Edinson Cavani is hardly ever available. That’s not surprising, Cavani has been injury prone for years now - last season any time he played more than 90 minutes in a calendar week he quickly ended up on the trainers table. Managing Cavani’s minutes was a huge part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job. Anthony Elanga was a striker in his youth days and while this blog would like to see him get a shot there, he’s nowhere close to the type of profile of striker that Ronaldo or Cavani are (neither was Mason Greenwood) or the type of player Martial was. Meanwhile Marcus Rashford hasn’t even played like a striker since 2019, rendering him as not an option. The problem of Ronaldo’s presence has now created problems in Ronaldo’s absence as well. The side still plays as though they have a 9 in the final third, which is what we saw from Rangnick against Leicester at the weekend...

Which will be addressed in the next tactical analysis, and will be linked here when posted.

It’s taken time, but Ralf Rangnick has changed United’s style and re-shaped how they are playing football. Unfortunately that new style is still anybody’s guess.