Reports this week suggested as many as eleven Manchester United players want to leave the club. The news came in the wake of a 1-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers in which many of these men played like they already had. At this point, it should come as no surprise that the Red Devils have downed the tools they had only just picked up again after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left. This has become a pattern at United, and a dangerous one at that.
The last three managerial appointments at United are instructive, with them all linked by a string of reactivity. Jose Mourinho was a brazen presence round the club, often publicly calling out players who weren’t performing. The squad found this approach disheartening, and he was sacked. He was replaced by the affable Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a coach more likely to put his hand on your shoulder than your throat. But the player’s jury convicted him of lacking tactical knowhow, or so the media reports said before he too was dispatched. A manager found wanting in the tactics department was replaced with one who wrote the curriculum for said department, in gegenpress godfather Ralf Rangnick. Now reports suggest the players don’t like this one either, and their lethargic recent performances certainly reflect that.
The timing of this leaked mass revolt was interesting. For all the naysaying, the retired players on talk shows bemoaning the fact United didn’t hire Steve Bruce, and the general moaning of people who use the word ‘ratio’, United have only lost one game under Rangnick. It was not until this point that news of the doomsday scenario happening behind the scenes was made public. It was almost like a first defeat under the new regime was an excuse, a pressure valve to release tensions that had been boiling since Solskjaer was still at the helm.
This is not to say Rangnick is blameless. His tactics have been muddled, and his favoured 4-2-2-2 has been an unconvincing use of the players available to him. At the same time, the shape and structure the German has implemented are no excuse for what is happening at Old Trafford. The former RB Leipzig boss is not telling his players to carelessly mis-hit four-yard passes, like they were doing all night long against Wolves. Rangnick isn’t telling Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes to angrily remonstrate when something doesn’t go their way, or ignore their travelling support and skulk off the pitch like they did against after the draw at Newcastle United.
The pundits will tell you it’s because he’s a cerebral German rather than a blood and thunder Brit, the player avatars on Twitter will tell you it’s because he’s not Erik ten Hag, Antonio Conte or whichever manager they’ve just packed on FIFA. In truth, the Manchester United mess is not happening because of Ralf Rangnick. It was widely-acknowledged that implementing his demanding pressing style would take time. Many of those same journalists who harvested clicks from tales of Rangnick’s background at Viktoria Backnang, his university playing days and his tactical proclivities will now tell you he’s not good enough. Initially though, they accepted that just as Jurgen Klopp found when he took over at Anfield, to rebuild a team in this style takes time. At a club like Manchester United though, time is usually measured with watches rather than calendars.
Some of the wantaways can be explained quite easily. United have long had a surplus of players they simply do not know what to do with. While no individuals were confirmed in the reports, and this is not an attempt to “out” them, certain players would make sense as potential departures. Jesse Lingard was rewarded for his superb displays on loan at West Ham United last season with a promise of first team football at Old Trafford. The midfielder has barely featured since, and would be justified in wanting to move on. Donny van de Beek is another player who the club constantly pulls closer with one arm while pushing him away with the other. Edinson Cavani has entered the last six months of his deal, and it's no secret he hasn’t enjoyed his reduced role since Ronaldo’s arrival. Dean Henderson, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba and Diogo Dalot are all names with various reasons for wanting to go.
What is clear is that this entire affair will not have a swift resolution. New United CEO Richard Arnold will not sign off on eleven disgruntled Reds leaving the club this month. United’s players will probably not suddenly buy into Rangnick’s methods and become pressing monsters overnight. It seems less and less likely progress will be achieved during the interim manager’s short spell in charge at all. The best course of action now might be compromise and stabilisation, a touch of short-termism to get the club through to the end of the season relatively unscathed.
You won’t find a permanent manager to please everyone at a club where the boss spends more time under a bus than tarmac. There will always be players quick to blame their shortcomings on whoever sits in the dugout. But a smart, long-term appointment this summer means a manager could have the time and remit to build a squad fit to challenge. More than just recruiting players with ability, United need to also ensure they sign players with the right attitude to succeed. Mourinho, Solskjaer and Rangnick will tell you that the required attitude is lacking at present.
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