Watching Ralf Rangnick abandon his 4-2-2-2 system at half-time against Wolves – the formation that was seriously bigged up after his arrival as this apparent godfather of gegenpressing – was telling.
It told me he doesn’t think this group of players can play the way he wants them to.
Wolves had managed 14 shots in the first half, so Rangnick decided to try a back three for the second half in a desperate bid to stop the waves of attacks. No good, as they still lost 1-0.
Where Rangnick goes from here is of the utmost importance to United’s season.
He walked into a relatively kind fixture list which meant he could try to implement his ideas. First he had Crystal Palace, which resulted in a 1-0 win. Then United beat Norwich, drew with Newcastle and beat Burnley. Their displays weren’t the best, however, and it felt as if this flat defeat by Wolves was coming.
Ralf Rangnick was forced to abandon his 4-2-2-2 system in the second-half against Wolves
Changing to three at the back made no difference as Wolves went on to take a 1-0 victory
It’s all well and good to want to win the ball back high up the pitch, but it only works if the team does it in tandem, like Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton.
With United, it’s been more highly depressing than high pressing and this set-up doesn’t get the best out of certain individuals.
Jadon Sancho was signed for £73million in part because of how good he was in one-v-one situations in Germany. Yet we haven’t seen that side to him.
The 4-2-2-2 means he’s often operating inside when, really, he’s better out wide. Sancho has completed only 20 dribbles this season – fewer than Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, N’Golo Kante and 40 other players.
When the opposition full-backs push up the pitch, Sancho is expected to track back. That leaves him way deeper than where United fans want to see him. Bruno Fernandes is expected to do the same job but that isn’t a strength of his. Rangnick realises that, hence why he benched him for Wolves.
United haven’t seen Jadon Sancho’s best as he’s been played out of position by Ralf Rangnick
Marcus Rashford has had a poor season and has created just six games in his 11 league games
It isn’t all on the system. Basic mistakes are being made by talented players who should know better. The way Sancho didn’t play in Cristiano Ronaldo and instead tried to score for himself. The way Edinson Cavani didn’t play in Mason Greenwood. The way Marcus Rashford killed a counter-attack with an over-hit pass in the dying moments. Rashford in particular has had a poor season.
He’s created six chances in total, which is one fewer than Arsenal centre back Ben White and two fewer than Ross Barkley, who’s only played 151 minutes for Chelsea this campaign. Some of United’s stars need to look at themselves.
Antonio Conte went into Tottenham and took them from 20th in the Premier League’s distance covered per 90 minutes table to first.
Rangnick needs to convince United’s players to likewise put in the hard yards for him, but I’m not sure he’s got the right characters.
Cristiano Ronaldo remains a fascinating topic.
I’ve said since the start of the season, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge, that he isn’t someone who presses for 90 minutes. He prefers to save his energy for the big moments, so it isn’t easy for managers like Rangnick to convince someone with his ego to play his way.
Now and then we will see Ronaldo go hunting after the ball, and United’s fans will cheer him for it, but it’s in flashes.
Rangnick needs to consider whether starting Cristiano Ronaldo up front is best for the team
He also needs to convince United’s players to put in the hard yards to improve their displays
After 19 games last season, United were top on 40 points. Now they’re seventh on 31, despite signing Ronaldo, Sancho and Raphael Varane. Rangnick needs to consider what is best for the team. If that is using someone else up top instead of Ronaldo, so be it.
I feel for United’s midfielders. They’re forever given an immense workload, especially if the two playmakers in front of them don’t help them out.
Against Wolves that was Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic. They’re expected to be here, there and everywhere. It asks too much of them, and that leaves United open.
Who’s the goalkeeper who’s made the most saves in the Premier League this season? Not Illan Meslier at Leeds. Not Tim Krul at Norwich or Nick Pope at Burnley. It’s David de Gea. His goal is being peppered.
United are fortunate he’s been in such good form, otherwise they’d be lower in the table than they already are.