At the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s run as Manchester United, they got absolutely dog-walked by Liverpool and Manchester City at home. The combined score was 7-1, but no one would have been surprised had it ended up 17-0. Plenty will tell you it should have. Even for the notoriously directionless yet complacent United board, this was too much. No longer could they just let Solskjær flounder and flop on the field and collect the sponsors’ checks no matter the results.
Some five months later, his replacement, Ralf Rangnick, took United across town to City. And got whacked 4-1, and it could have 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 canceled out by a total capitulation in the second hal,f where they had no shots, and their xG was 0.00. United have gone from non-competitive with their closest rivals to…non-competitive against their closest rivals.
And one can’t help but ask what is the plan here? What is the goal?
At the time of Rangnick’s hiring, it made some sense to go the caretaker route. There weren’t any prime candidates to take over long term just lying around. Antonio Conte has signed up at Spurs (and began regretting it immediately, apparently). United were never going to try and poach a lower-profile, currently employed manager–like a Graham Potter or something, as that’s basically what they’d done with Solskjaer.
If the hope was that Rangnick would employ a system and change the culture to prepare the ground for whoever would take over next summer and for the long-term, it’s hard to find too much evidence of that. Rangnick, who basically invented the Red Bull style of play, came in trying to install his 4-2-2-2, “hell’s coming to breakfast” pressing style. But it didn’t work, because this United team is hardly built for it. Its forwards 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 hence make their open managerial position more attractive to anyone deluded enough to put up with their boardroom mishegas), Rangnick scrapped it. And they have gotten results, such as it is, not losing in 11 games across all competitions before yesterday. Except, they only won five of those 11.
Yesterday, Rangnick went back to that 4-2-2-2 system, though tried to soup it up by either being relieved that Cristiano Ronaldo was hurt or dropping him and giving Ronaldo and himself the cover of injury to avoid a bigger story (didn’t really work. Thanks sis). And as stated above, for the game’s first quarter, it did work. Except once Pep Guardiola figured it out and told his team to flood McTominay’s side and press both he and Fred into oblivion, they were overrun and on the ass-end of another whipping. Whether it was Phil Foden dropping deep or Kevin De Bruyne surging from midfield or João Cancelo overlapping or whatever else, United were chasing ghosts.
So who is this for? Of the starting 11 yesterday, only Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, David de Gea, and Harry Maguire are nailed on to be regulars next year. And one of them is a keeper. Is wiring Anthony Elanga this important?
Because if you believe the rumors of who United are chasing to become manager, Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t play this way. Neither does Erik Ten Haag. And whatever similarities those managers, or whoever takes over, might have to Rangnick’s system, they’re going to want to do it with their own players. Which will require their own settling in and training and repetition.
And no manager worth his salt is going to put up with United’s lack of spine. They completely gave up in the second half, as they’ve done a lot under Rangnick. They’ve blown leads to Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Burnley, and Southampton. Just as they did under Solskjær, when one thing goes wrong for them, it all goes wrong. Even if the tactics were right for whoever’s next, the mentality isn’t, and that would be addressed through new players too.
If the idea was to change the culture, that hasn’t happened either. As soon as Rangnick showed up, players were running to their sympathizers in the media to bitch about the tactics or Chris Armas or whatever else. Just yesterday was the whole Ronaldo affair. And maybe a good portion of the behind-the-back sniping will disappear once the club offloads Ronaldo’s twice-accused (but denied) ass to LAFC or Inter Miami or Qatar or whatever’s next for him, but there’s still a rot to be cleaned out.
United still have a decent chance to finish in the top four. They trail Arsenal by a point, but have played three games more. They still have to go to Liverpool and host Chelsea, but the rest of the schedule is pretty forgiving. Their trip to Arsenal at the end of April is probably make-or-break.
But it seems more and more that whoever takes over from Rangnick, if anyone takes over at all, is going to be starting from scratch instead of the slight head start Rangnick was supposed to provide. Such has been their way now for a long time.