What Is The Problem At Manchester United? And How Can Ralf Rangnick Fix It?

What’s the problem with Manchester United?

Ah, now, well where do you begin?

The big problem at Manchester United is the ownership, we all know that. But neither the Glazer family nor Ed Woodward are running around on the pitch in a red shirt and we know the players are capable of better than what they are currently showing, either due to their historical performance at the club or elsewhere.

So what is meant by the opening question is – what is wrong with the team at the minute?

We were all excited by the appointment of Ralf Rangnick because it meant the replacement of an inexperienced manager with one responsible for overseeing modern structures being installed at clubs. We saw a change in system and an increase in tempo for thirty minutes against Crystal Palace and since then, well…

It’s been the sort of meh, the sort of nothingness, that has caused people to say that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t the problem.

With each passing result or performance, those overly keen to say Solskjaer had done a good job place greater weight and emphasis on the ninety-minute episodes they were equally eager to disregard against the landscape of a three year project.

Guilty of not looking at the bigger picture? I say this as someone who has supported all the managers, for better or worse. With David Moyes it was clear that it wasn’t working from just before Christmas.

With Louis van Gaal, it was inevitable that the senior players had developed a terminal resistance to him by Christmas 2015.

With Jose Mourinho, it was unsettling to see him boast about knocking United out of the Champions League with Porto when he’d just been eliminated by Sevilla, but it was more obvious a few months later – when he was remonstrating with the Old Trafford crowd when Marcus Rashford missed a chance in a game – that it was time for him to go.

The early season performances this time around had been concerning but it was clear that Solskjaer’s reign was untenable after the Liverpool game.

It turns out that in football the answer to the question ‘how long is a piece of string’ is usually : it’s as long as it takes for the fixture list to not look like too much of a handicap for a new manager.

And so it was for Ralf Rangnick, who even had the benefit of the more difficult prospects against Brentford and Brighton postponed so he could have more time to work on his approach between two visits to the worst sides in the league. And, in both of those games, United were lucky to come away not having been beaten.

Rangnick questioned the body language of the game at Carrow Road but not at St. James’ Park – that was left to Gary Neville, who called the players ‘whingebags’, and the supporters, who were once again left frustrated by a team who seem content to coast through another season of nothingness at the world’s biggest club.

It is a rot that starts from the top. Of course it is. The Glazers have always pulled the trigger on a manager right at a critical point where it would (theoretically) make more sense to back him because there was more of a statement to be made in the support of a manager to oversee the necessary transition of big-name outgoing players in order to have a more complete authority of the dressing room.

The owners have also facilitated a structure where it is clear the manager is only in jeopardy if a top four place is at risk. This isn’t conjecture – we know it to be fact. We know there are clauses in contracts which made it easier to dismiss a manager if the objective of qualifying for the Champions League isn’t met.

Nobody would have thought it even conceivable after over a generation of consecutive top 3 finishes where only two or three of those years were spent without a genuine title push. There was an acceptance within the support that the transition to a new manager might take time, so one bump – Moyes – was tolerated.

Since then we have been dealing with the repercussions, making allowances for the individual merits of a manager and accepting the decreasing standards of the club because the permanent state of transition and then regression has been force-fed to us. At each time the club has looked ready to push on – be it under Van Gaal, Mourinho, or Solskjaer, investment was limited and interference over transfer matters was heightened.

The message was – to manager, players, and supporters – that speculation in the pursuit of accumulation only really applies to the owners’ own accumulation. It’s important that the club participates in the Champions League and gets to the knockout stages but it’s not important that the club wins anything because there’s a fine line between being one of the also rans and being a competitor with a risk of having to pay significant win or transfer add-on bonuses that will likely outweigh the financial benefit of winning a trophy. Cynical? Perhaps. But it’s cyclical, and when it is, you have to look for a reason, a method.

There’s no genuine argument over the dismissal or the timing of the managerial departures. They had to happen. But of course there remains a lingering, and perhaps now even growing, distrust of the players after recent performances.

It’s fair to say that they shoulder much more of the responsibility for the post-September crash than they have been subjected to, particularly since the club took the public line of holding the manager accountable. They’ve been afforded excuses and haven’t they accepted them all?

One of the world’s greatest of all time came in. He’s now 36, but has already showed his class with his goal return and instinct to be in good positions. You would want a group of players who finished second to feel they could elevated by him, and instead that’s not been the case. When United didn’t win, the wisdom of of signing Ronaldo was brought up by the media. The projection that all eggs were now in the Ronaldo basket was a heavy weight lifted from players who seemed to believe the same.

And suddenly there’s none of the energy and running of the early weeks of the campaign – just an apathetic lethargic expectance that Ronaldo will deliver. He has received much criticism for what happened at Newcastle but a rewatch of that performance, whilst not recommended, would see the forward making all the right runs with passes not being played at the right time by players who have a tendency to deliberate, hold on to the ball, overplay, and – let’s be brutally honest – are perhaps not good enough to execute the sort of passes to find the forwards in the spaces their great runs find. Ronaldo was clearly frustrated. It’s not fun to watch – but maybe he has a point.

Ronaldo has created a legacy in the game and has a desperate desire to end it at the same high standard he’s played to impossibly through his thirties. He’s playing in a Manchester United team alien to the one he first played in – it’s a squad filled with players who are happy to accept the profile of playing for the club without having done the hard yards. They benefit from the projected glory Ronaldo himself earned over ten years ago.

And God, if that isn’t a metaphor again for the way the club has been milked since the Ferguson years.

The financial situation and strength and all of the product of that hard work is now being used and drained by people off the pitch unapologetically and bewilderingly siphoning money out of it at an alarming rate and the profile of the club that was built on the principle of players working harder than any opponent to achieve success is now being exploited by players happy to go to Dubai every December while their agent tries for the fourth year in succession to flog them to the highest bidder.

The issue is there’s no consequence for those who aren’t providing the passes. Marcus Rashford hasn’t played well for a year but is still in the team as first choice when fit. He now has a huge international profile because of his political work, and rightly so – and Manchester, and this writer, is immensely proud of him for that.

Is it fair to say that Rashford also exists in a category of players who have the benefit of everything that comes with playing for Manchester United – the stage, the salary, the platform of being at the biggest club in the world that has significant marketing repercussions. Repercussions that prevail over playing time, for example?

Rashford isn’t one of these – but you can definitely say there are players who appear to enjoy the profile of playing for United more than the reality of the on-pitch demand, and it probably suits one or two of those players to not play for United and yet remain contracted to them rather than play for another club, because their visibility shrinks exponentially. It’s a short life and a short career and the riches on offer are extraordinary even to peripheral squad members. Do you blame them for taking advantage and therefore wanting to eke out every thousand pounds on offer for being contracted as a player who is contracted to Manchester United?

I’m reminded of Juan Sebastian Veron, one of the most outrageously gifted players that United have ever signed, but a player who lasted only two years at the club before Ferguson was ruthless with a private standard rather than the public ‘youse are all f*****g idiots’ stand.

United have half a dozen of players nowhere near as talented as Veron coasting on the sidelines, with no incentive to do better – and trust me, writing that sentence with the knowledge that a six-figure weekly salary to play for Manchester United doesn’t serve as enough incentive is deeply unsettling.

Where Rashford exists is in the category of players whose performance isn’t exceptional and yet his place in the team is saved because of the existence of players in the above mindset. Harry Maguire. Fred. Others come to mind.

These problems started with the owners and their public declaration of standards but were facilitated and emphasised by Mourinho. At least under Van Gaal, as unpopular as it was, squad members who were not deemed as useful were sold, even if for a pittance.

Mourinho was content to make examples out of players and isolate them – even if he had brought them in. It’s a point I’ve made before, but Mourinho also made a fateful choice at a critical time.

United’s drop in standards had seen an increased trend in teams coming to Old Trafford and getting results for the first time in generations. Mourinho was once known for making home grounds a fortress and there was hope that would be repeated. Instead, when that seemed too difficult, he changed track completely in the latter parts of his first season, prioritising the Europa League for Champions League qualification, resting players for league games against Spurs and Arsenal even though a top four place was easily achievable via the league.

The club and squad could not afford, at such a critical position, to be seen to treat some games more seriously than others. It meant that there was nothing riding on it, the standards would not need to be so high – and didn’t we see the consequences of that as United finished a poor second in the following campaign? Every game at United is a Cup Final for the opponent. Mourinho, and the players, learned that you can’t afford to switch on your desire to win so easily.

Let us journey back to 1994, and the mindset of a young Roy Keane, who had been at the club for just a matter of months.

“What really bugged us was the thought that these guys were out to make a name for themselves by sorting us out,” he wrote in his first autobiography. “Why the f**k didn’t they put the effort in every week, then maybe they wouldn’t be playing for f**king Norwich or Swindon.”

It’s impossible to estimate how profoundly important that way of thinking was. It kept United trained in the art of dealing with these so-called lesser teams, with every player aware that the badge on their shirt was a target. They knew their own standards would have to be one hundred percent in order to win.

Speak to any Manchester United player since time began and you’ll notice a pattern. United are the biggest club in the country, the biggest scalp regardless of who is top of the league. It’s been that way for players of the 70s and 80s, right through from the first team to the youth team. It’s part of the philosophy of the club and it’s a part of the mentality you have to deal with in order to succeed. Back in the day, if a player struggled with it, they were on their bike.

You can see why Keane, and Gary Neville, voice their displeasure at what they see. Solskjaer, having played under and represented those standards, struggled to translate them as a manager. Could he have been able to with a transfer window that allowed him to move on – to name just three – Martial, Lingard and Pogba, and therefore make an emphatic statement that there are indeed consequences for coasting? We’ll never know – just as we weren’t able to know if Mourinho could have done the same when he wanted to sell two of the above three.

It’s Ralf Rangnick’s problem now. And it already is a problem. Doesn’t it feel like the new team shape is an issue? We’re hearing the players haven’t liked being asked to train until the late afternoon. But surely they must have realised that something needed to change?

The primary thing that needs to change is to turn around this bottom of the barrel idea that just because you signed for Manchester United, you’re automatically befitting of the status of the players who wore the shirt before you.

Results don’t lie.

This United squad is a contender for the worst that has represented the club in the Premier League, even if it has the talent to suggest otherwise – because results don’t lie.

Take any number of United squad players over the Premier League glory years – Nicky Butt, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Teddy Sheringham – and they’d become the most crucial players in a team like this.

United aren’t missing players of their talent – they’re missing players of their application.

Everybody has lauded Rangnick’s arrival with all the fanfare one would expect of someone who has been so heavily invested in tactics in the modern game but it would appear that United’s issue is frustratingly simple to identify, even if it is probably much more difficult to remedy than spot.

One problem Solskjaer fixed from the Mourinho days was to be more ambitious, albeit in a pragmatic way, in bigger games.

It yielded some good results, but it’s difficult to say that any of it really felt like traditional Manchester United. I’m reminded of a line from Fabio Da Silva who spoke of returning to Old Trafford as a Middlesbrough player – they were winning 1-0 and lost 2-1 in the late minutes.

“The stadium came alive with an energy,” he said. “You almost know, you can feel, that United are going to score another goal. They did. It was my first time playing against them. ‘So that’s how you feel,’ I thought.”

Ironically that was under Mourinho – it might well have been the death throe of what used to be the Manchester United spirit, cajoled by only the memory of what used to happen, muscle memory exercised by the decaying walls of the most storied stadium in the country.

It’s those games that United have struggled in, even after signing Bruno Fernandes, who temporarily fixed the problem – because there are too many players who, like when Ronaldo came, are happy to see that one player receive all the pressure to deliver.

We have to be truthful. We want these players to succeed. I’d love nothing more than to see them all win a title and prove me wrong.

But you look at Dalot, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Bailly, Jones, Shaw, Fred, Matic, Pogba, Lingard, Rashford, Martial, even Van De Beek, maybe even Greenwood, maybe even McTominay, and wonder if they walk off the pitch as they did against Norwich or Young Boys or Newcastle and feel that they had done justice to themselves, much less the crest on the shirt they were wearing.

The suspicion is – and it has to be, because the evidence of the last two years tells us so – that these players believe their own message when they say they’ll go again. They believe that’s enough.

They believe that voicing the intention to do better next time is sufficient, and that even if it isn’t, then voicing the intention again is sufficient again.

They’re happy to indulge the club’s media hype machine that places them in the succession of the likes of Crerand, McIlroy, McClair – the profile of these players deliberately chosen to emphasise a point about the importance of commitment and spotlight – as well as the even more celebrated legends.

They accept it and embrace it because it’s part of their own marketing profile.

United supporters would, by and large, be happier to see a player stand up and admit they’re embarrassed by it, because the brutal truth is they aren’t worthy of the comparisons and shouldn’t be associated with the great achievers of the past until they have done something to merit it.
How to solve that? It’s a modern problem, exacerbated by the extortionate salaries handed to teenagers, as wonderfully admitted by Micah Richards recently. The former City defender conceded that he coasted as soon as he signed a big contract.

That is probably natural, and it’s undeniable that United are afflicted with this – and maybe there are not enough players in that situation honest enough to admit that is an issue. They want the manager to coach it out of them but are happy to buckle under the first excuse – a system. A late training session.

That’s Rangnick’s biggest immediate issue. It may be difficult for him to convey a message that comes across in the right way because he’s only now getting used to Manchester United and he’s doing that at the same time as getting used to English football.

Sir Alex Ferguson would probably have made a comment about Newcastle’s commitment against United versus the lapdog display they gave Manchester City – Rangnick isn’t educated in the experience of the British game to know the difference.

United supporters, however, are too familiar with this squad to know they are capable of better and that it isn’t an excuse that holds much water.

The new manager has to, somehow, find a way of making the prospect of playing for Manchester United a privilege for the players who are there. He has to make it a matter of routine that they earn the right to play, just as Newcastle did, through endeavour – that has to be the basic principle, because it’s been missing for five years, and it is the most critical factor that can turn around United’s on-pitch performances.

It has to be that rather than results which are addressed in the short term because we’ve seen there is no long-term substance to one without the other.

We want to see Harry Maguire confronted by a hard reality, to be offended by a Newcastle team who were right to think they could get a good result if they just stood up and tried to bully United. We want him to be offended by that like Roy Keane was and not say something isn’t an excuse but it is an excuse.

Is Rangnick in tune with the nuances of the British game enough to help United address this in the short term?

Do the players have enough backbone and personal pride to stand up and show accountability for a problem that everyone who sits at Old Trafford can identify for themselves? They can. They can definitely be better than what we’ve seen. They know that as much as we do.

There’s no shame in not being good enough. But accepting the stage and the grandeur and the profile and the money means having to accept the responsibility that comes with it. They can talk a good game as much as they want, but if the last four or five years is representative of the careers of these players, they will go down alongside some of the worst in club’s post-war history. That’s despite having so much talent between them. Enough talent to make games like the Newcastle one scratch your head – just as we did before Solskjaer was sacked – because we know they’re better than this. They do too. Maybe they won’t be good enough. Supporters will accept that so long as they see the requisite honesty from players.

If they do have that honesty, they could still turn around their entire destinies at the club, and there is no reason why, eighteen months from now, we’re not talking about a serious title challenge.

But standards need to improve at Manchester United – and the players, before anyone else, need to take a look in the mirror.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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