Watching Ralf Rangnick left his 4-2-2-2 system at half-time against Wolves – that was seriously bigged up after his arrival as this apparent godfather of gegenpressing – was telling.
It told me he doesn’t think this group of players can play the way he wants them to.
Wolves had managed 14 shots in the first half, so Rangnick decided to try a back three for the second half in a desperate bid to stop the waves of attacks. No good, as they still lost 1-0.
Where Rangnick goes from here is of the utmost importance to United’s season.
He walked into a relatively kind fixture list which meant he could try to implement his ideas. First he had Crystal Palace, which resulted in a 1-0 win. Then United beat Norwich, drew with Newcastle and beat Burnley. Their displays weren’t the best, however, and it felt as if this flat defeat by Wolves was coming.
It’s all well and good to want to win the ball back high up the pitch, but it only works if the team does it in tandem, like Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton.
With United, it’s been more highly depressing than high pressing and this set-up doesn’t get the best out of certain individuals.
Jadon Sancho was signed for £73million in part because of how good he was in one-v-one situations in Germany. Yet we haven’t seen that side to him.
The 4-2-2-2 means he’s often operating inside when, really, he’s better out wide. Sancho has completed only 20 dribbles this season fewer than Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, N’Golo Kante and 40 other players.
When the opposition full-backs push up the pitch, Sancho is expected to track back. That leaves him way deeper than where United fans want to see him. Bruno Fernandes is expected to do the same job but that isn’t a strength of his. Rangnick realises that, hence why he benched him for Wolves.
It isn’t all on the system. Basic mistakes are being made by talented players who should know better. The way Sancho didn’t play in Cristiano Ronaldo and instead tried to score for himself. The way Edinson Cavani didn’t play in Mason Greenwood. The way Marcus Rashford killed a counter-attack with an over-hit pass in the dying moments. Rashford in particular has had a poor season.
He’s created six chances in total, which is one fewer than Arsenal centre back Ben White and two fewer than Ross Barkley, who’s only played 151 minutes for Chelsea this campaign. Some of United’s stars need to look at themselves.
Antonio Conte went into Tottenham and took them from 20th in the Premier League’s distance covered per 90 minutes table to first.
Rangnick needs to convince United’s players to likewise put in the hard yards for him, but I’m not sure he’s got the right characters.
Cristiano Ronaldo remains a fascinating topic.
I’ve said since the start of the season, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge, that he isn’t someone who presses for 90 minutes. He prefers to save his energy for the big moments, so it isn’t easy for managers like Rangnick to convince someone with his ego to play his way.
Now and then we will see Ronaldo go hunting after the ball, and United’s fans will cheer him for it, but it’s in flashes.