Ralph Rangnick has been named interim manager of Manchester United, replacing the departed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The idea being that Rangnick can guide the club until the end of the season, before taking a role behind the scenes at the club in a consultancy role.
When considering the stature of Manchester United, this is the biggest job Rangnick’s career. However, he is a man who has the upmost respect of those involved in football and is seen as something of a revolutionary figure in the game, particularly in his homeland, Germany.
Rangnick is often dubbed the ‘Godfather of the Gegenpress’ as he is widely accredited with inventing the intense pressing style that is so evident in modern football. Without Rangnick there may never have been the likes of Thomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, and countless other managers. He is something of a visionary, and has cult-like status amongst his peers, in a similar vein to that of Marcelo Bielsa.
The size of Manchester United as a club is why this presents perhaps the biggest challenge of Rangnick’s career. While he will have more financial might and resources at his disposal than he’s ever had previously, he has been tasked with the unenviable job of changing the culture of a club that is still desperately clinging onto its glory years under Sir Alex Ferguson. Football has evolved since Ferguson retired in 2013, and this appointment shows that United have realised that it is now time that they did too.
Rangnick has almost always favoured a 433 or 4222 formation to allow him to implement his Gegenpressing style. As with any appointment, there will be players that benefit, and players who are less suited to the style of play. Rangnick’s style means this will be more evident than ever, and this post explores which players in the United squad will be the winners and the losers of Rangnick’s appointment.
Who could find their place under threat?
One of the players who could see his place under threat is Harry Maguire. He will no doubt have to adapt his game to fit Rangnick’s style. One factor of this will be playing quicker into the midfield, as Maguire is usually a player who likes to take a lot of touches when in possession of the ball.
However, the real issue for Maguire is one that cannot be coached. The central defender lacks pace, and when he is asked to defend one-against-one he struggles. In an expansive system that encourages pressing and creates gaps, Maguire is at risk of being exposed in a way that rally highlights his flaws.
The likelihood of Maguire losing his place, at least initially, under Rangnick is thought to be low, though. Maguire is the club captain, and the club spent £80 million to acquire his services from Leicester City, so it is highly likely he will retain his starting spot unless he shows signs of struggling with the new approach.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is another defender who could struggle under Rangnick. The right-back’s defensive work has generally been praised in his time at the club, but it is going forward where Wan-Bissaka is less effective.
Wan-Bissaka has the attributes to be effective in a Rangnick team. He is a very powerful runner who can defend on the front foot. The issue is his output. He carries the ball well and gets into attacking areas, but all too often he picks the wrong pass or his final ball lacks quality. This is evidenced by the fact he has no goals or assists in 17 games this season.
If Rangnick opts for the 4222 formation, then it is often the fullbacks who are expected to provide the width going forward. With Wan-Bissaka’s biggest weakness being his impact in the final third, this could cause a problem. This was even evident under Solksjaer’s time in charge, as United’s attacks were often noticeably lopsided due to Shaw’s superiority in attack when compared to Wan-Bissaka.
The saving grace for Wan-Bissaka is the lack of competition for his place. Diogo Dalot hasn’t progressed as hoped, and is yet to be trusted to make the right back spot his own. However, it could a position that the club look to address in the near future unless Wan-Bissaka improves his output.
Moving further up the pitch, Bruno Fernandes is a player who, surprisingly, may be one of the players who suffers in the Rangnick regime. While Fernandes’ form had been electric since joining United in January 2020, he has been on a poor run of form of late. This run has seen him go 14 consecutive games without a goal in all competitions.
There have already been grumblings of discontent amongst United fans regarding Fernandes’ performances in recent months, with calls for Donny van de Beek and Jesse Lingard to replace him growing increasingly louder.
One of the biggest issues with Fernandes will be whether he will work hard enough to implement Rangnick’s pressing game. This is an area of the game that van de Beek and Lingard are streets ahead of Fernandes. His body language can also frustrate, with the Portugal international often seen walking solemnly when out of possession or throwing his hands up in despair when things aren’t going well.
If Fernandes is willing to put in the work rate required and finds his form he will be a real asset to United once more, but he could find his starting spot less guaranteed than under the previous management.
Who will be pushing to start?
While Maguire’s lack of pace may hinder his chances of being a success in a Rangnick team, Eric Bailly’s pace could be a real asset. Now 27, Bailly has struggled to ever really consistently tie down a starting spot at United. With his aggressive approach and pace to burn, he should be relatively comfortable being asked to defend one-versus-one situations and could this be very valuable for United in the coming months.
If Bailly does manage to dislodge Maguire from the starting line up, then he could form a strong partnership with Raphael Varane, who similarly is an athletic defender who thrives on individual battles. Whether the two can form an effective partnership remains to be seen but it will definitely be something to keep an eye on under Rangnick’s interim management.
An injury-free Bailly has been a rare site in the last couple of seasons. The Ivory Coast international will be hoping to keep fit and seize this opportunity.
Donny van de Beek
The forgotten man under Solskjaer, Rangnick’s appointment could have come just in time for Donny van de Beek. It is highly likely that, had Solskjaer remained in charge, van de Beek would have been pushing hard to leave United in January. Now, with the changes that have taken place, van de Beek could soon be one of the first names on the team sheet.
The Dutchman learnt his trade at one of the best schools of football in the world at Ajax. An academy where attractive, technical football is ingrained into all who pass through it, Ajax’s style also means that van de Beek is incredibly effective at pressing. This will be music to Rangnick’s ears, and he may well look to the 24-year-old to implement these qualities at the spearhead of his midfield.
United fans have been crying out for van de Beek to get more of a chance since he arrived in Manchester, and they could be about to see the best of the man who convinced them to spend £35 million to sign him. He could well dislodge Fernandes in the attacking midfield position, but don’t be surprised to see him feature a little deeper if Rangnick opts to play a 433 formation.
The one player who seems to be flourishing most from Solskjaer’s departure is Jadon Sancho. Having courted the England winger for two seasons before finally signing him, Solskjaer didn’t seem to know how to get the best out of Sancho.
In fact, Sancho didn’t score a single goal while Solskjaer was in charge. Since he departed, Sancho has scored two important goals in two games; one against Villareal in the Champions League and then in the draw at Chelsea on Sunday. It seems unlikely that the £73 million man’s form has picked up since Solskjaer’s sacking by mere coincidence. He seems to have been let off the leash and allowed to play with more freedom.
Sancho is a box of tricks and is one of the best dribblers in world football, but not without considerable output. He hit double figures in both goals and assists in his last three seasons in Germany and, after a slow start, it now looks like he has found his feet.
Under Rangnick, Sancho should thrive. High-paced, attacking football means that Sancho should see plenty of the ball in attacking areas where he can do real damage. The somewhat negative, counter-attacking football under Solskjaer didn’t suit Sancho. He is a player that needs to be heavily involved in his team’s play and not on the fringes. He likes to get lots of touches of the ball and play his part in the build up before looking to be decisive in the final third.
Where does Ronaldo fit?
One thing that has been mentioned repeatedly since it became clear Rangnick was set to take temporary charge of United is where does talisman Cristiano Ronaldo fit into a high-energy, pressing team at 37. The answer is that Rangnick must find a way. While Ronaldo may not play every game, evidenced by the decision to start him on the bench against Chelsea, the United board will expect to see their prized asset leading the line more often than not.
Much has been made of whether Ronaldo makes United a better team or not, but it is clear that United would be in a far worse position had Ronaldo not been at the club. He has bailed his teammates out on countless occasions already this season and his ten goals have been crucial, particularly in the Champions League.
Ronaldo may not fit this way of playing perfectly but he can still be very effective in providing the focal point of the attack and, generally, if he gets a chance he buries it. If Rangnick is to be successful in shifting the culture of the club in the short-term then he has to find a way to integrate Ronaldo into his way of playing.
Ronaldo is undoubtedly a luxury, but he always has been. In the great United side he played in under Sir Alex Ferguson it was no secret that Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez often had to take on his workload defensively. They were willing to do so because he won them games. He still does, and therefore, if the rest of the United team are willing to put in the work, then he can still be their main man.