Following 8 years of mainly slow-tempo, pragmatic displays at the Theatre of Dreams, Manchester United fans across the world were left optimistic for the future after the Reds’ 1-0 home victory over Crystal Palace on Sunday. Fans were impressed with United’s intensity against Patrick Vieira’s side, with the team’s ability to press being a breath of fresh air for supporters who watched on, as Ralf Rangnick took charge of his first game in the Old Trafford hotseat. The German interim manager said himself that he was “positively surprised” after the game, which saw Fred fire in United’s winning goal with a fine curling effort.
A New Era
Having been blessed with 13 Premier League titles and the finest football in all the land under Sir Alex Ferguson, the last few seasons have hit United fans like a ton of bricks, frankly. In the seasons since the Scotsman departed, no manager has really taken the job by the scruff of the neck and put down a serious stamp in the history books; with a Community Shield, an EFL Cup and a Europa League title, Jose Mourinho remains the most successful manager of the post-Fergie era.
The lack of success has been reflected in the style of play in the sense that, apart from a handful of displays, performances have been underwhelming at best, with the infamous ‘United Way’ looking a thing of the past.Embed from Getty Images
However, Rangnick gave United fans a glimpse of what is hopefully to come in his first match in charge last weekend. With the typical Manchester weather doing its thing, the tactician only had 45 minutes of training with the players and a mere video footage session in the lead-up to the match, yet the players appeared to have taken a lot more on than what many thought they could.
The players come flying out of the blocks as the first half started. Setting up in a 4-2-2-2 system, Scott McTominay and Fred looked revitalised in the middle of the park. Although not perfect, the pair were closing down the opponent constantly, with their grit, tenacity and speed essential to how United sustained the pressure on an intimidated Crystal Palace side. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf sat comfortably inside the opposition half, with Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot almost playing as wingers. Marcus Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo lead from the front, with Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes applying the pressure behind them.Embed from Getty Images
Unlike how it was under Solskjaer, the players were creating chance after chance, and it could be credibly said that Ronaldo was unlucky not to have a first-half double or even a hat-trick. Rangnick said after the match that the only thing missing from that opening 30 minutes were goals.
In complete and utter honesty, there was an evident drop off as the game progressed beyond the half-hour mark, probably due to the fitness of the players being a little short of where it needs to be, but you would expect that would come in time as Rangnick’s tenure plays out. On a cold and windy Manchester afternoon, there was a sense of new hope in the stands of Old Trafford.
New Manager, Clean Slate
It was widely believed in the Reds fan base that, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in charge, many members of the club’s playing staff were getting an easy ride. With many a big game bottled and poor performers keeping their place in the side on a weekly basis, it is not outrageous to suggest that some of the ex-manager’s key players were becoming complacent, with a real lack of accountability present in the dressing room.
In spite of that, the majority of fans and pundits alike are willing to see what this talented group of lads can do under a master tactician in the form of Rangnick.
For some players, including Dalot and Telles, it is now about proving themselves after being starved of game-time in the previous manager’s time in charge. The pair looked like the players that fans have always wanted them to be against Palace as they attacked down the flanks with 62% possession, but their defensive work should not go unnoticed. Telles completed the most passes, tackles, touches and interceptions for the Red Devils on Sunday, with Dalot having his right side on lockdown from the first kick to the last.Embed from Getty Images
For other players, such as McTominay and Fred, it is about redeeming themselves following many poor performances over recent months. Whilst McTominay looked an improved player in Rangnick’s opening fixture, Fred looked a revolutionised one. With 95 touches, 72 passes and 9 tackles across the game, the Brazilian bossed the midfield with a certain swagger that has been absent for so many matches in his time at the club. After the game, Rangnick could be quoted saying that “both Scotty and Fred are almost perfect”. It is now about finding consistency for the pair, but with a winning goal on his weaker foot, it was quite the ‘Fredemption’ for Fred in particular.
The likes of David De Gea, Ronaldo and Fernandes were almost destined to start under the German interim, but for the likes of Rashford and Sancho, a starting spot was not guaranteed. For them, it is about building consistency and nailing down a spot in the team. Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Donny van de Beek weren’t involved a great deal on Sunday, so it is about proving themselves when they get the opportunity in their instances.
Things That Shouldn’t Go Unnoticed
Whilst fans will talk about the promising signs of gegenpressing, or Fred’s long-overdue moment of glory in front of the Stretford End, there were a few things that Rangnick did during and after the game that should certainly not go unnoticed.
With little under 15 minutes to play and the game tied at 0-0, the new interim boss made the bold decision to bring on 19-year-old Swedish forward Anthony Elanga for some rare Premier League minutes. Having bagged a league goal away at Molineux in Wolverhampton on the bow out of the 2020/21 campaign, Elanga’s opportunities looked set to be limited with Solskjaer’s reluctance to give the academy graduates a chance to shine when the stakes were high.
Ralf Rangnick, who has a proud track record of giving youngsters chances in Germany, wanted to rewrite that script.Embed from Getty Images
Despite not having a monumental impact, Elanga’s energy and fresh legs were pivotal to the team getting at Palace towards the end of the game. He helped United stay on the front foot as the game entered the latter stages, which ultimately lead to Fred firing in the winner in front of 75,000 fans.
Solskjaer would likely have never made that change. Hopefully, it is a sign of things to come for Elanga and the other young prospects in and amongst the first-team squad.
In his post-match media duty, Rangnick showed himself to be the intelligent tactician that he has a strong reputation for being. He really had the aura of a man who knew what he was talking about. With a certain charisma and charm in the way he spoke, many fans felt reconnected to the tactical side of Manchester United, a side that Rangnick’s Norwegian predecessor was often quick to shut down.
In brief but insightful detail, Ralf spoke about the unique 4-2-2-2 setup and the tactical thinking behind it. The former Leipzig gaffer spoke about how he thought “it might be better to have control in the center of the pitch with Cristiano having a partner up front”. He described the constant pressure as a way of “keeping them away from our goal” and “keeping them constantly under pressure”.
After explaining his tactical setup, the 63-year-old said- “I think it worked out well”. It is fair to say that millions of supporters worldwide will agree with his concluding assessment.
Next up for Manchester United is Young Boys in the UEFA Champions League, or should I say the UEFA Cristiano League? Ironically enough, the Portuguese superstar could very well sit out the game in midweek, with the likes of Martial, Greenwood, Cavani, and now Elanga and Diallo pushing for minutes in the forward positions; in what is a nothing game, there is space to make wholesale changes. Either way, Wednesday 8th December is certainly a date for supporters’ diaries, as many will look forward to seeing further developments in the United players as Rangnick looks to implement his gegenpressing style on the squad.