On Wednesday evening, Bernardo Silva scored arguably the Premier League’s goal of the season at Villa Park. The goal came from a counter-attack. Riyad Mahrez won the ball in the right-back position, passed it to Fernandinho, who played it long to Gabriel Jesus out wide on the right. As Jesus’s cross came in, Silva, on a dead run, volleyed it home with a left-footer. The goal deserved a standing ovation. In the cross-town rivalry, it offered an irony.
Once upon a time, when Manchester United were at the peak of their powers, their former manager Sir Alex Ferguson had branded Manchester City as United’s “noisy neighbours”. Through gradual development under the Abu Dhabi ownership and via Pep Guardiola’s managerial genius, City have now turned the tables, so much so that they now trick United into signing spent forces, while bagging top talents at their rivals’ expense.
It’s an irony that Silva, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias play for City, while Diogo Jota leads the line for Liverpool. United make do with Bruno Fernandes, a very good player against smaller teams, who barely shows up in big games. United revelled their shirt sales surge and share price rise following Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival in the summer. The fact of the matter is that, Ronaldo, an all-time great in his own right, is 36 years old and in the twilight of his wonderfully illustrious career. United can’t even land the very best Portuguese players, let alone Kylian Mbappe or Marco Verratti. That’s how the mighty have fallen.
In 2019, United scouted 804 right-backs before signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace in a deal worth up to £50 million, the same year when Kieran Trippier moved to Atletico Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur. Trippier has since won the La Liga with the Spanish club. Wan-Bissaka still freezes as soon as he enters the opposition half. Attacking contributions are equally important for modern-day wing backs. Stats put out by United’s official app show that the 24-year-old is yet to make an assist after 17 games this season. As far as defending is concerned, mistakes have started to pile up for Wan-Bissaka, the latest being a mindless kick to Thiago Silva to concede a penalty against Chelsea last Sunday.
United’s erstwhile manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted to bring Trippier this term. His rebuild looked only a midfielder away – someone of Declan Rice’s skill-set – to reach the next level. Ronaldo came instead, creating a tactical conundrum and putting paid to a defensive midfielder’s signing. It eventually cost Solskjaer his job.
Move on to the club captain Harry Maguire, a £80 million defender, logging just 12 successful tackles, winning 34 out of 57 duels and getting the better of his opponents in 14 out of 24 50-50s this season. His teammate, left-back Luke Shaw, usually walks wounded and the last season now feels like an aberration.
“They (players) aren’t working as hard as the three teams at the top, who are brilliant, have a lot of talent, well-coached and they run. United’s players have stopped running in the last couple of months,” the club’s iconic former captain Roy Keane recently told Sky Sports.
He went on: “I said over the last year or two that leopards don’t change their spots. Man United have talented players, particularly in possession. But, unfortunately, the game is also about when you are out of possession.
“I think sometimes now when the players get interviewed, they are like robots. Over the last week when a lot of the players have been talking about the manager leaving, they keep saying Ole. Ole was their gaffer. Maybe Ole was too friendly with them.
“Maybe that was a problem. Maybe he was too nice to these lads, because these lads have done what I predicted and thrown him under a bus.”
Against this backdrop, Ralf Rangnick, the godfather of gegenpressing, has arrived at Old Trafford as the interim manager until the end of the season. “We have five different situations in football that in the end decide football games: What happens if we have the ball ourselves? Number two is what do we want to do if the other team has got the ball, what kind of match-plan, gameplan do I give my players? Then we have the two situations of transition, what happens the very moment when we lose the ball and what happens when we win the ball? These are number three and number four and then we have set-pieces; more than 30 per cent of all the goals are scored after set-pieces. So those are the five situations and all the top teams, if you look into the last two-three years of the Champions League winning teams, they were in all five areas above average,” Rangnick had said on a CV Academy video a couple of years ago. In the same video, he called his style “heavy metal, rock and roll”, with no square and/or back passes.
Rangnick is called ‘The Professor’ in German football, someone who has inspired the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann. The problem is that, at United, he will have to deal with a lot of overpriced players, oozing mediocrity on the pitch. In the boardroom, he will face a broken structure, where two Bristol University pals, with seemingly very little knowledge in football, run the show on behalf of the club’s absentee owners, the Glazers. From that perspective, Rangnick’s two-year consultancy role would be more important than his interim managerial stint.
United need to rip up the old vibes and embrace modernity. Rangnick’s appointment is a step in the right direction in that regard. Then again, his experience notwithstanding, the 63-year-old would be new to English football, at a club whose enormity can gobble up even the best of coaches. By appointing Rangnick, United have moved from Solskjaer’s nice-bloke vibe to tactical mastery. This is probably their last chance saloon, with very little margin for error.