Manchester United were awful at Brentford but tactical changes, subs and putting Cristiano Ronaldo in his place showed Ralf Rangnick’s worth.
“The position we are in now is due to loads of hard work by everyone,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said exactly a year ago, as Manchester United prepared to reclaim their place at the Premier League summit with a battling 2-1 win away at promoted Fulham. Ralf Rangnick might have had similar thoughts 365 days later; his troubled side has certainly made incredibly hard work of this Champions League chase.
That first half against Brentford was as painful, infuriating and revealing as any other in the club’s recent history. Passes were misplaced with reckless abandon. Attacks fizzled out through laughable ineptitude. Fred scuffed an overhead kick clearance in his own box to give Brentford their fifth shot in the opening quarter of an hour. They were bullied. The hosts sensed a collective crisis of confidence, snapping into tackles, threatening from countless counters and forcing more turnovers than a Greggs pitch in Dragons Den. Had they realised the importance of lifting their efforts on goal above foot height then the game might legitimately have been settled before half-time.
By that point, a statistic surfaced that told a thousand stories: Brentford had collectively covered 4.5km more than Manchester United. And it absolutely showed.
Yet from the ashes of that dumpster fire emerged a coherent plan being carried out by a committed and organised unit. Ivan Toney’s late consolation ruined the clean sheet and meant some dirty laundry might instead be aired in training, while those opening 45 minutes must be addressed. The time for reflection and introspection will come.
That’s a handy 40 minutes for Ralf Rangnick. Team talk, good reaction, brave sub, system tweak, sub scores.
— Adam Crafton (@AdamCrafton_) January 19, 2022
Before then, Manchester United should cherish that spell of 20 minutes or so during which it all come together: when Scott McTominay turned into a counter-pressing machine that could answer all the midfield problems; when Fred continued his unlikely role as chief creator; when Diogo Dalot thrived at right-back; when the academy generation provided a perfect response, crowned by Marcus Rashford’s first goal in 13 appearances.
He, Anthony Elanga and Mason Greenwood showed that perhaps the younger players can always help the mature, older ones. That maybe they are not the ones that “don’t accept that if you criticise them”. That “you have to find the right balance to speak with” not the teenagers and early 20-somethings, but the five-time Champions League winners who turn 37 next month.
Cristiano Ronaldo produced the sort of chest action Marouane Fellaini would be proud of for the second goal but this was not his night. His reaction to being taken off in the 71st minute was typically petulant and should not dominate the discourse.
Let Rangnick’s response instead define the mood. In leaning over to engage the Portuguese in deep conversation instead of letting him simmer, the interim coach took control of the situation and stamped out any lingering Ronaldo flames that might taint this victory. Played out to the backdrop of substitute Rashford celebrating a first strike since October, it was excellent management from a coach who is quickly growing into the role.
Whether Manchester United should be stewarded even in the short-term by someone essentially learning on the job is another matter – their last permanent manager fit that bill and did alright for three years, to be fair – but if lessons are heeded then this season is still salvageable. Rangnick, in explaining the Ronaldo substitution, pointed out that “he came back from a little injury” with West Ham on the horizon at the weekend, while the draw from two goals up against Aston Villa had played on his mind. “I didn’t want to make the same mistake again,” was a telling but promising admission. The message was heeded as well as whatever was said at half-time.
So let the odd player Google him, scoff at his methods, leak their dissatisfaction to the media and try to undermine the latest man to brave the Manchester United post. This suggested Rangnick has enough authority and trust from the right people to make a real difference – just as long as everyone puts that hard work in.