When Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s run as Manchester United came to an end, they were absolutely walked around by Liverpool and Manchester City at home. The combined score was 7-1, but no one would have been surprised if it ended 17-0. Many will tell you that he should have. Even for the notoriously directionless but complacent United board, it was too much. They could no longer just let Solskjær flounder and crumble on the pitch and collect the sponsors’ checks, regardless of the results.
Some five months later, his replacement, Ralf Rangnick, took United across town to City. And was beaten 4-1, and it could and should have been more. The only improvement was the first 20 minutes, where United scored and looked threatening on the counter. But that was undone by a complete surrender in the second half, where they had no shots, and their xG was 0.00. United have gone from uncompetitive with their closest rivals to… uncompetitive against their closest rivals.
And one can’t help but wonder what’s the plan here? What is the goal ?
In Ran’s timehiring Gnick, it made sense to go the goalie route. There were no prime candidates to take over long-term, just hanging around. Antonio Conte signed up for Spurs (and started to regret it immediately, apparently). United were never going to try to poach a low-profile, currently employed manager like a Graham Potter or something, because that’s essentially what they did with Solskjaer.
If hope was that Rangnick would employ a system and change the culture to set the stage for whoever would take over next summer and in the long run it’s hard to find too much evidence of that. Had rungnick, who basically invented the Red Bull style of play, came to try and install his 4-2-2-2, “hell comes to breakfast” style of pressing. But it didn’t work, because this United team is not made for it. Its attackers don’t run and its two deepest midfielders, Scott McTominay and Fred, are monstrously ill-equipped.
Because United still needed results to qualify for the Champions League (and therefore make his open managerial position more attractive to anyone cheated enough to support his boardroom mishegas), RanGnick scrapped it. And they got results, as they are, not losing in 11 games in all competitions before yesterday. Except they’ve only won five of those 11.
Yesterday Rangnick returned to this 4-2-2-2 system, although he tried to reinforce it by being relieved that Cristiano Ronaldo was injured or dropping it and giving Ronaldo and himself the cover of the injury to avoid a bigger story (didn’t really work. Thanks sister). And as noted above, for the first quarter of the game, it worked. Except once Pep Guardiola got it and told his team to flood McTominay’s side and squeeze him and Fred into oblivion, they were overrun and on their ass with another kick . Whether it was Phil Foden falling deep or Kevin De Bruyne coming out of midfield or João Cancelo overlapping or whatever, United were chasing ghosts.
So who is it for? Of the starting 11 yesterday, only Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, David de Gea and Harry Maguire are nailed to be regulars next year. And one of them is a guard. Is Anthony Elanga’s wiring so important?
Because if you believe the rumors about who United are looking to become manager, Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t play that way. Neither does Erik Ten Haag. And whatever similarities these managers, or whoever takes charge, might have with Rangnick system, they will want to do it with their own players. Which will require their own setup, training and rehearsal.
And no manager worth his salt will put up with United’s lack of courage. They gave up completely in the second half, as they did a lot under Rangnick. They blew drove to Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Burnley and Southampton. Just like they did under Solskjær, when one thing goes wrong for them, everything goes wrong. Even if the tactics were good for the next one, the mentality is not, and that would be solved by the new players as well.
If the idea was to change the culture, that didn’t happen either. As soon as Rangnick appeared, players were running to their supporters in the media to complain about tactics or Chris Armas or whatever. Yesterday it was all about Ronaldo. And maybe a good chunk of the snipers in the back will disappear once the club unloads Ronaldo’s. ass accused twice (but denied) at LAFC or Inter Miami or Qatar or whatever it is for him, but there’s still some rot to clean up.
United still have a decent chance of finishing in the top four. They trail Arsenal by one point, but have played three more games. They have yet to travel to Liverpool and host Chelsea, but the rest of the schedule is quite forgiving. Their trip to Arsenal at the end of April is probably decisive.
But it seems more and more that whoever succeeds Rangnick, if someone takes over, will start from scratch instead of a slight head start Rangnick was supposed to provide. This has been their way for a long time.