Four weeks in Manchester in December. Two narrow wins, two unconvincing draws and one big outbreak of Covid-19. Some honeymoon, isn’t it? And worse still for Ralf Rangnick, after only just avoiding defeat to a Newcastle United side that deserved only their second Premier League win of the season, that honeymoon is most certainly over now.
Ragnick appeared to recognise as much from his vantage point in St James’ Park’s away dugout, a few yards in front of the press box, where he and technical director-cum-assistant coach Darren Fletcher took turns to register their displeasure with what United were producing out on the pitch.
This display had all the clumsy, ponderous and downright poor play of the late Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era. It was, therefore, nothing like the early Solskjaer era either. The Norwegian’s fourth game in charge, coincidentally, also came at St James’ Park. A 2-0 win made him the first United manager to win his opening four league games since Sir Matt Busby.
That same feat is now beyond Rangnick, but it is also a reminder that conclusions can be drawn far too quickly. The similarities between this United display and those they were serving up under Solskjaer earlier this season should not really come as a surprise, given the consensus that this club’s problems always extended far beyond the manager.
And in any case, even after just a month in charge, it would be wrong to claim that nothing has changed.
Ralf Rangnick looks on at St James’ Park
One aspect that is most certainly different under Rangnick is his frankness during dealings with the press. Whereas Solskjaer would usually accentuate the positives of a poor display to protect his players, his successor is more forthright and direct in his post-match assessments, while still managing not to throw any individuals under the bus.
“I didn’t like the performance at all,” Rangnick admitted. “Today we didn’t control the game apart from a few moments. It’s all about energy, physicality and who wins the second balls. In all those areas we weren’t at our best. The good thing is we got a point but the performance needs to be better.”
Rangnick can recognise, identify and freely acknowledge a problem, which is a good thing, as there are still plenty to solve. Top of the list: United’s struggles to establish control over games, which was the primary objective that their new interim manager set out to achieve from his first day on the job.
As in the narrow win over Norwich, United failed to exert their influence over Newcastle for long stretches and looked vulnerable every time that they lost the ball. The most concerning thing of all may be that this lack of control came in back-to-back games against the Premier League’s bottom two. Third-bottom Burnley visit Old Trafford on Thursday.
Ralf Rangnick talks to Marcus Rashford at St James’ Park
Finding the right personnel combinations to fit Rangnick’s favoured 4-2-2-2 system is also proving to be a challenge. Marcus Rashford has been deployed as one of the two strikers and as the right-hand No 10, yet struggled to make an impact in either position. Even more concerning, it is more than a year since his last solid, sustained run of good form.
Bruno Fernandes is struggling too, even if his game is erratic at the best of times. Losing possession is the price you pay for him attempting low-percentage killer passes. In the starting line-up at St James’, he was United’s only established creative outlet. He needed to be running the show, yet his influence on proceedings was dimmed by his wide-left role.
Perhaps in recognition of these difficulties, Rangnick changed the shape at half time to a 4-1-3-2 and United improved – but only when compared to a first-half performance that, in all honesty, had bottomed out. And even after that meagre second-half improvement, you would struggle to say that United deserved their point.
Edinson Cavani celebrates his equaliser against Newcastle
“We shouldn’t be looking for excuses,” Rangnick said. “We have to meet the demands in terms of speed, tempo, rhythm, transitions… We still have steps to go. Today was not a step forward. We need to decrease the number of giveaways and unforced errors and those steps of development we need to take.”
Again, that is an honest and accurate assessment. It matches the overall picture at St James’ Park of a team drawn from an imbalanced squad, still unsure of itself, still finding its way, still adapting to the specific demands of a manager who is still only four games into the job. That, after all, is exactly where Rangnick’s United currently are. It is the reality and, after a very brief honeymoon period, it should be starting to dawn on us all.