The Red Devils aren’t playing barnstorming football under their interim manager, who took over when they were seventh. But they are getting the job done and look well placed to secure a Champions League spot for next season
Few things delight the Manchester United fan-base as much as an injury-time winner, especially when rival fans dispute the goal. So it was no surprise that Marcus Rashford’s debatable stoppage-time strike against West Ham last weekend sparked wild celebrations at Old Trafford, with several supporters and at least one expert viewing the moment as a turning point in what has been another frustrating season for the Red Devils. For a club used to winning the championship in the first two decades of the Premier League era, United has had very little to celebrate ever since Alex Ferguson stepped away from the game; understandably, a win that brought to mind a phenomenon the manager was associated with — ‘Fergie Time’ — had fans smiling again.
United interim coach Ralf Rangnick had started Ronaldo at centre-forward with 19-year-old Anthony Elanga and Mason Greenwood to his left and right, but the combination produced very little. Rashford was brought on for Elanga in the 62nd minute. Twenty minutes later, Rangnick rolled the dice by throwing on Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial and switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4 formation. The move paid off when all four combined for the winner in the third minute of the three minutes added on. Ronaldo fed Martial who slipped it outside to Cavani, who looked close to offside before he hit a cross to Rashford who scored from point-blank range. VAR looked back at the goal and there was a second roar around Old Trafford as it ruled Cavani had been onside.
“Quite rightly the boys were celebrating, they know what a massive win this was,” said Rangnick. “Those are the best kind of wins when the other team has no time to come back. I am very pleased the three subs prepared the goal and scored the goal.” Asked if ‘Fergie Time’ was now ‘Ralfie Time’, Rangnick said: “I don’t know how long ‘Fergie Time’ was. Was that the last five minutes? I wouldn’t mind if that happened.”
The winner was also a huge moment for Rashford, who has looked devoid of confidence in recent months. The England international scored for the first time since October in a 3-1 win at Brentford in the previous fixture and was in the right place at the right time for what could be a decisive moment in United’s desperation not to miss out on the riches and prestige of Champions League football next season. For, the 1-0 win lifted United a point above the Hammers into fourth, with 38 points from 22 games. The Red Devils leapfrogged Tottenham and Arsenal in the battle to finish in the top four, with Spurs’ defeat against Chelsea and the Gunners’ draw at home to bottom-placed Burnley rounding off the perfect weekend for United.
Not for the first time in Rangnick’s spell in charge the result papered over the cracks of an insipid attacking performance, but the German came away looking inspired as his three substitutes combined for the winner. Former United defender and current ‘pundit’ Gary Neville certainly thought it was a significant weekend, telling Sky Sports: “I think Ralf Rangnick comes out of this week stronger than he started. I think everyone has seen what is happening and they are backing him and I feel that he feels more in control than he maybe was a week or two ago. The goal in the last minute is a big one. A big one for the club and a big one for the scorer.”
Rangnick has lost just one of his 10 games since taking temporary charge till the end of the season, appearing to have steadied the ship since replacing the sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last November. After failed experiments with David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer in preceding years, United turned to the 63-year-old German to salvage the 2021-22 season. Having found the club languishing in seventh, 12 points behind then league leader Chelsea, Rangnick has guided it into less choppy waters.
But the arrival of a pioneer of the high-intensity pressing game increasingly dominant in world football has not quite shaken up the club’s playing style. To be fair to Rangnick, it’s too much to expect a manager to implement his vision when he takes over mid-season for six months and doesn’t have enough time on the training field with his players; the urgency of getting results every week gets in the way of developing a long-term football identity.
Rangnick, whose ideas have influenced Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel among others, has a reputation of being a man for the long run. His work at RB Leipzig both as director of football — he masterminded the club’s expansion with an overhaul of the scouting system, developing young footballers and making profits in the transfer market — and as manager showcased his ability to put in place robust structures that would help implement a clear footballing vision and survive after his departure. So it was curious that United hired him as a stop-gap.
At the end of the season, Rangnick will take up a “consultancy role for a further two years”, the club said at the time of his signing. The man himself nurses ambitions of spending a little longer in the hot seat, saying, during his first official press conference, “I am fully aware they are looking for a new manager [at the end of the season]. Maybe, if they ask me my opinion and everything goes well and I help develop the team, I might make the same recommendation as I did at Leipzig twice and say to them for me to stay on!”
That possibility does not look likely at this stage, with reports suggesting that United is already working through a managerial shortlist that contains the names of PSG’s Mauricio Pochettino, Ajax’s Erik ten Hag, ex Barcelona boss Luis Enrique and former Spanish national team coach Julen Lopetegui. But whatever Rangnick’s future, his present will define United’s future, for anything but a top-four finish will complicate matters next season; it’s harder, even for a club of United’s reputation, to attract the elite talent that will make a significant difference to a side’s trophy-winning chances if it isn’t in the Champions League.
Rangnick faces several challenges. He has a bloated squad — he has given as many as 31 players minutes on the field. He also has big egos to manage. Ronaldo reacted angrily to being substituted against Brentford, asking the manager why a younger player had not been brought off instead. Paul Pogba — who polarises opinion in United — is in the final year of his contract, with several expressing doubts about his commitment to the club’s cause. Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho, who were part of a £100million summer-spending spree, are yet to find their best in Manchester. Rangnick, if rumours in the British press are to be believed, is also concerned about the physical conditioning of the team and the quality in midfield. It isn’t puzzling therefore to see why United’s performances have often been described as disjointed and lacklustre this season.
But there are reasons United remains in pole position in the race to finish in the top four. It has an incredible array of chance-creating, goal-scoring talent — Ronaldo, Rashford, Cavani, Bruno Fernandes, Sancho, Pogba, Mason Greenwood — to produce decisive moments even when the side isn’t dominating the game. It also has a clutch goalkeeper in David de Gea, who, for all the criticism he receives, often keeps United alive. And in Rangnick, it has a manager with an incredible eye for detail. In a race of thin margins against rivals who have at least as many flaws as United and don’t possess its range and volume of attacking talent, that helps no end.