Rangnick and Man Utd must change to avoid FA Cup KO

Alex Keble
Ralf Rangnick and Steven Gerrard will meet when Man Utd host Aston Villa in the FA Cup.

Akex Keble reckons Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa should have little trouble dumping Man Utd out of the FA Cup unless Ralf Rangnick tweaks his system…


Football matches are psychological battles as much as they are tactical or technical, and you could hardly find two clubs further apart mentally than Manchester United and Aston Villa this week. One club faces mass mutiny, an extraordinary leak detailing the extent of player power at Old Trafford and a crisis that reportedly has 17 (seventeen) players wanting out. The other is cackling maniacally as they welcome Philippe Coutinho on board.

Coutinho won’t be ready for this one, not least because he tested positive for Covid-19 just over a week ago, but his arrival will no doubt give Steven Gerrard’s side a much-needed boost after the strangely lacklustre performance against Brentford last weekend. After receiving a rollicking from the manager, and seeing the club’s ambition in action in the transfer market, we can anticipate a sharp upturn in energy levels in Monday night’s FA Cup third-round tie.

The same cannot be said of Man Utd. When Ralf Rangnick arrived he would have expected a shred of humility and patience from the squad, but instead they have already informed sources they are ‘underwhelmed’ and ‘unimpressed’ by his training and tactics, despite famously innovative tactician and coach Rangnick only having a handful of Covid-hit sessions in his first month at the helm.

It reveals a toxicity that runs much deeper than we had presumed, highlighting just how indulged the players were under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – whose coaching deficiencies were supposed to be counter-balanced by the atmosphere he created. The Daily Mail suggests things are as bleak and cliquey as they were in the final days of Jose Mourinho.

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Villa genuinely could win this game on good vibes alone, on working harder and playing with more energy against a team close to rock bottom. But there are plenty of tactical reasons to assume Villa have the upper hand, too, such has been the disastrous nature of Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 formation.

The basic idea is for United to play quickly in the transition, to press hard and play in sharp vertical lines as soon as the ball is won, taking advantage of the opponent’s disorganised shape to overwhelm with a front four making runs on the shoulder of the defensive line. That hasn’t worked largely because United aren’t pressing or remaining compressed themselves (which until this week seemed a reflection of a lack of training time, but now feels like an attitude problem).

However, it is also the result of Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 being unsuited to a super-club forced to dominate possession and territory. He has never managed a club this big before, and is yet to realise the Germanic tactical philosophy he helped to invent needs adapting to the biggest stage.

It is a concern also developing at Chelsea, where Thomas Tuchel is finding his 3-4-2-1 shape limiting when his team are forced to hold possession for long periods. Jurgen Klopp had to adapt, too, after a chaotic first year. The problem for Rangnick is that he doesn’t have that time – and he barely has any support, having been undermined by the club’s vague offer of a ‘consultancy’ role at the end of the season.

But he needs to change and he needs to change now. Opponents tend to sit deep and narrow for long periods against United, making the 4-2-2-2 an awkward shape for building through the lines; under Rangnick the inside forwards peel wide to find space, and as Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic drop to receive the first pass they are therefore left with an empty space through the middle. United form an O-shape around that two and four, leading to aimless passing down the flanks.

Aston Villa score against Brentford

Villa will be able to force this relatively easily, given Gerrard’s Christmas tree formation has two number 10s behind a striker. These two players will sit on Matic and McTominay and block the path into the two strikers, making that O-shape all the more futile; expect more frustration for the hosts.

Off the ball, United’s problems run even deeper. The 4-2-2-2 leaves huge gaps through the middle and between players, especially when it’s as decompressed as it has been at Man Utd, and as Wolves showed last Monday it is easy for the wide players to simply dribble diagonally through the lines, breaking into open areas. Villa may lack the pace to do this, although the bursting runs of Jacob Ramsey have been impressive recently and there is hope of counter-attacks launched through the young midfielder.

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And so Villa’s best chance of success is actually during sustained periods of pressure, not counters. Wolves dominated in the first half thanks to their 3-4-2-1 formation and United’s wingers rarely tracking back; with Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho occupying McTominay and Matic, Trincao and Daniel Podence were free to dominate the game. In a similar role, Emiliano Buendia and Anwar El Ghazi could flourish as they look to slip Danny Ings in behind.

Villa appear to hold all the cards, then, although it is certainly possible that United adapt significantly following the damaging defeat to Wolves. Rangnick switched to a 3-4-2-1 in the second half, showing he is open to changing formation, while the introduction of Bruno Fernandes gave United more urgency. In the first half the forwards kept coming towards the ball, whereas in the second they made frequent runs of the sort Rangnick demands.

With Tyrone Mings still out, Villa could be susceptible to Fernandes and the movement of United’s forwards – if Rangnick switches to a formation that is easier for these under-coached and over-indulged players to understand.