Ralf Rangnick’s reign as Manchester United manager got off to a winning start as Fred scored a fabulous goal to defeat Crystal Palace.
Much was made of United’s difficult autumn run of fixtures and before the recent managerial changes many comparisons had been made with the similar stage of the season in 1989, with the Crystal Palace home game from that campaign notable for Pete Molyneux’s ‘Ta-Ra Fergie’ banner.
Of course, those comparisons were made by people looking for comfort in historical cycles – in 2021, the Palace home game signalled the start of a new era, and Rangnick made an instant impression by putting out his team in a 4-2-2-2 formation that had Rashford alongside Ronaldo and Sancho and Fernandes as ‘two tens’, in the words of the new man. On paper, though, the team was the same as the one which faced Arsenal, and those at Old Trafford were curious as to what could actually change in such a short space of time.
The answer came within the first five minutes. United pushed so high up the pitch that you might have feared for them getting vertigo; for the first time in five and a half years it looked like a Manchester United team set up to boss and dictate the pace of the game.
That pressure panicked the visiting defence and presented openings and chances – none of which could be taken, the best arguably falling for Ronaldo. Occasionally United’s forwards seemed a little surprised by the effectiveness of this new strategy, and were guilty of overplaying or taking an extra touch when a shot was on.
Palace boss Patrick Vieira has achieved some good results this season and he showed decent nous to adapt his own tactics and stifle United, though it could be said the hosts also tired a little. They were unable to score when dominant in the first half and started the second half in a sluggish fashion which has been become frustratingly familiar to the United fans.
Rangnick freshened things up bringing on Greenwood for Sancho, and then surprisingly plumping for Anthony Elanga as a replacement for Marcus Rashford. Elanga’s vibrancy added a new dimension and an unpredictable element for the visitors to deal with – and United almost immediately found a way through. Greenwood laid the ball off for Fred at the edge of the box and despite the Brazilian being on his right hand side, he hit a smart shot which flew into the top corner.
In truth, United didn’t look like scoring another – but they also didn’t look like conceding, save for one moment just prior to their goal when Jordan Ayew fired a shot across goal from a corner. Rangnick had expressed his dissatisfaction with the defending he saw on Thursday and in recent weeks and it’s fair to say that was much improved. It did feel for the first time in a very very long time that United were proactive in the game. Is that all the key words used? Oh, let’s just say ‘gegenpress’ for the sake of it.
It’s clear to see that this is a work in progress. Rangnick commented after the game that McTominay and Fred were good off the ball, and Fred in particular can probably say he’s had his best week at the club, but you can already envisage the difference one quality midfielder can have. Rashford looks out of sorts, even though he was at his best in this game when instinctively moving quickly. That forward four is going to be a riddle for the new manager to resolve.
But Old Trafford was receptive to that opening thirty minutes, which, without wanting to be hyperbolic, looked more like Manchester United than any post Ferguson-side – more of that please.
Rangnick raised a few eyebrows selecting the same eleven that beat Arsenal but it made sense. First of all you can’t punish the players for winning a game and second of all the change is going to have to be gradual. What the new man did do was to alter the shape and that sent out a massive message.
There was discipline within the structure – the midfielders looked like a complete unit with two players rather than two players running wherever they want. There was a little dysfunction in the forward line but there were positive moments within that too. That’s to be expected.
It’s clear to see that there is a philosophy shift at United. Both in terms of formation and intensity. You couldn’t put your hand on your heart and say that shift was responsible for the win – Fred scoring with his right foot like that is a rare thing that can fall under the description of good fortune – but then, fortune favours the brave.
To labour the point (but lord, doesn’t it feel good to labour over something so positive) United finally looked like a brave team, who earned the win through will and perseverance.
De Gea 6
Van De Beek