It is no overstatement to say that Manchester United’s clash against Newcastle on Monday evening is the biggest of Ralf Rangnick’s caretaker stint so far. The last couple of weeks have been far from plain sailing, and he will be keen to get back on track.
After he replaced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, penning a six-month deal until the end of the season, he quickly set about drilling his players for his high-pressing style of play and enjoyed two Premier League victories, against Crystal Palace and Norwich.
However, since then, he has been handed headache after headache. United, like many of their top-flight rivals, endured their own Covid-19 outbreak. Their Carrington training complex was shut, and two league fixtures were ultimately postponed.
Ralf Rangnick’s Manchester United will face their toughest test under him against Newcastle
Cristiano Ronaldo scored to hand them victory at Norwich last time out, after a poor showing
Only over the past week or so has normal business resumed at the club. They were last in action on December 11, at Carrow Road, but have returned to training. Rangnick even let his squad enjoy Christmas Day, due to their additional day off.
Now, though, it is back to business. They will come up against a Newcastle side short on confidence, but not on match fitness. Eddie Howe’s side have been battered recently by Manchester City, Liverpool and Leicester, and need to stop the rot.
Rangnick, on the other hand, will be desperate for another victory – what would be a third consecutive top-flight triumph. And he has a number of big decisions to make with his team selection, with players back in contention, and others for the chop.
Rangnick will be desperate to his players to hit the ground running after their Covid disruption
Raphael Varane and Edinson Cavani are both in the matchday squad for Monday evening, a welcome development which also presents the interim manager with his first true test. He may decide that both superstars are ready to be brought into his starting XI.
Although United have kept two clean sheets in both of Rangnick’s league games so far, their newfound high-octane system has occasionally left them looking vulnerable at the back, just as they were under his predecessor, Solskjaer.
Quite simply, they have missed the experience of Varane. A towering presence alongside Harry Maguire, the World Cup winner arrived to much fanfare over the summer and quickly set about becoming United’s standout defender.
In his absence, United have occasionally looked all at sea. Chaos, hurried clearances and lapse marking were all hallmarks during the final days of Solskjaer’s reign, and Rangnick quickly identified these areas as needing instant improvements.
Raphael Varane is back in the matchday squad and may be dropped in next to Harry Maguire
Against Palace, that happened. Patrick Vieira’s side struggled to get to grips with United flooding them in a suffocating press for around two thirds of the game, and those clad in red earned three points after Fred bent a sublime effort into the net.
The all-too familiar failings returned at Norwich, though. Again, United won, courtesy of a single goal, but they were extremely fortunate not to concede. Indeed, it was only the heroics of David de Gea, who is back to his best, that earned the shut-out.
As a result, Varane’s return is timed perfectly. Providing he is fully fit and raring to start, he should bring back a degree of calmness to these troubled waters. Maguire has also impressed under Rangnick, and their partnership will be crucial under him.
Should Varane be dropped straight into the team, it will be Victor Lindelof who drops to the bench, perhaps harshly. The ice-cool centre back has long since been criticised for his shortcomings in the air but, more often than not, is reliable enough.
Keeper David de Gea single-handedly kept United ahead at Norwich, who regularly tested him
Equipped with a superb passing range, Lindelof has been known to float a number of inch-perfect balls down the pitch for the likes of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho to race onto in-behind. This forward-thinking attitude would have pleased his coach.
At Norwich, he complained of breathing problems and was taken off late on. They were worrying scenes, with his team-mates visibly concerned, and the centre back was given a heart monitor as club doctors look to discover the cause of the issue.
For now, then, it may be best for him to remain on the sidelines. He was pictured driving into training recently, indicating that he is able to return to action, but Rangnick is likely to be keen to field his first-choice centre backs together again.
Solskjaer may have been reluctant to rotate, as shown by him playing Maguire in almost every game during his tenure, but his successor certainly is not. In fact, he will be forced to make these decisions while his players get to grips with his style.
Victor Lindelof stood in admirably during Varane’s absence, and it may be harsh to drop him
The second big question facing the manager is whether he drops Marcus Rashford, meanwhile. His drop in form has raised eyebrows at Old Trafford, and it may be time for him to be withdrawn from the firing line as he looks to get back to his best.
Against Norwich, he delivered another underwhelming display. The basement side certainly stepped up their energy levels in a bid to shock United, but Rangnick did not hold back when outlining his disappointment with his players’ body language.
He even singled out the ‘offensive department’ for the lack of intensity, with Rashford just one of a handful of big names who flatted to deceive in Norfolk. However, this was not his first poor performance – he has endured too many of them this season.
In fact, he has started eight games since undergoing surgery in August, and his last goal came in October. Since then, he has been guilty of falling into the same traps.
Rangnick may be tempted to drop Marcus Rashford with the forward seemingly still in his rut
Rashford has often run head-first into traffic and lost the ball, frustrating supporters and team-mates alike. Worryingly, he also failed to pose any real danger to a ramshackle Norwich backline which included a midfielder filling in at centre back.
This will be a cause for concern for Rangnick, who will know all about the forward’s qualities. On his day, Rashford is able to dazzle his way beyond any defence in the world. But when he is poor, he slows down United, making them worse.
More and more, it is his worse side which has come through in games, when his team need him to step up and be counted, perhaps more than ever. It is a conundrum United must solve, and they may be better served by dropping him.
More positively, the club will fancy their luck in their upcoming fixtures. After facing Newcastle on Monday, they play Burnley, Wolves, Aston Villa and West Ham before the end of next month. Rashford is set to play often, and will need to get on the score sheet.
Rashford has run into dead ends this season, and was last on the scoresheet back in October
Ample opportunities to get himself out of his slump, then. But if he doesn’t, United have Edinson Cavani waiting in the wings. Rangnick has favoured a 4-2-2-2 formation so far, leaving the other No 9 spot next to Cristiano Ronaldo up for grabs.
At Tottenham, in one of Solskjaer’s final highlights in charge, Cavani and Ronaldo were fielded up top together, to devastating effect. This may be an approach Rangnick opts for against Newcastle, with the former now available for selection.
It has been widely reported that he is open to leaving the club next month, with a number of elite clubs across Europe sniffing around, but United are understood to want to keep him and make him see out the rest of his deal. It is clear to see why.
Every time he has played, he has stepped up to the plate. Cavani presses relentlessly, continually defying his age, and has been on hand to supply the finishing touch on several occasions. For a United side lacking in goals, he may be the dream antidote.
Edinson Cavani has also returned for United, and Rangnick may play him next to Ronaldo today
Dropping Rashford and recalling Cavani would also send out a strong message. Rangnick is a notoriously hard-line tactician, one not afraid to upset the apple cart in order to extract the best out of his players. At United, his approach is no different.
From now until the end of the season, there is not much room for more slip-ups. They have three games in hand over Arsenal, and must win each of them in order to climb above them and take fourth, the final Champions League qualification place.
Varane will only aid this cause, and Rashford being removed from the spotlight may bring back some of the creativity United lacked at Norwich. The two decisions seem like no-brainers, but Rangnick must get these calls right to succeed this season.