"We want to finish fourth in the league, this is the highest possible achievement we can get.”
Ralf Rangnick spoke these words in his press conference ahead of tonight’s Premier League clash with Brighton & Hove Albion. There is something galling and outwardly shocking about hearing an incumbent Manchester United manager speak in these terms. Certainly, this proclamation that fourth place represents the Red Devil’s ceiling this season was met with plenty of social media mockery. But was this such an outlandish statement to make? The institution of Manchester United might be expected to challenge more lustily for higher honours, the actual team in its current state is arguably nowhere near.
United currently sit fifth, one point behind West Ham United but have played a game less than David Moyes’ men. Chelsea occupy third, seven points ahead of Rangnick’s side. Given United’s erratic form amid a season of flux, surely a single-minded chase of the Hammers is the most effective approach. Certainly finishing any higher than Chelsea is off the table. Liverpool are currently second, with a mammoth 14 point gap over their rivals from Old Trafford. Given the choice between closing a one point gap and a seven point gap, focusing his player’s minds on the challenge of leapfrogging West Ham is actually a logical choice from Rangnick.
The furore around his comments does highlight a flaw in the way the former RB Leipzig architect has gone about his work. While more modest target-setting is fine when it’s done in the context of what your players are realistically capable of, the forum should have perhaps been private. Publicly abdicating any wishes of finishing even third is an admission of weakness. For a club that remains accustomed to winning, with Premier League and Champions League title wins in living memory, you are inviting criticism with such comments. Shining a spotlight on how far the mighty have fallen has done Rangnick no favours in this instance.
Still, despite the venue being ill-advised, Rangnick’s comments were perfectly acceptable. Giving his team an achievable goal is just good management. The outrage at Ralf’s low-bar actually ended up masking a more off-the-wall statement the German made.
Rangnick invoked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure as manager, saying of his team’s plight “It has always been a concern since Ole left the club. That was one of the reasons why he probably had to leave the club.”
Like the fourth-place comments, there is nothing factually wrong with Rangnick’s words. He is patently a straight-talker who plainly states his opinion when asked. But while the rot had set in under Solskjaer, with five losses in his last seven league games, Rangnick cannot wash his hands of United’s current situation. On his watch, there have been draws with Burnley, Southampton, Newcastle and Aston Villa. The Red Devils were also defeated in a limp display against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wins in even two of these games would make United top-four favourites, with enough upward momentum to target Chelsea in third. Blaming Solskjaer three months after the fact is simply a deflection, which underlines how underwhelming Rangnick’s side have performed in the three months since.
Rangnick is a truth-teller. In a Premier League landscape defined by mind games, Rangnick just says what he means without much consideration for how it will be perceived. More subtlety and tact would perhaps help, to avoid attracting negativity from fans who still bristle at the idea United are not a guaranteed top four side. The Solskjaer history lessons will have to end too, as the Rangnick and his players have had plenty of opportunities to improve their current plight during his reign. That mission starts tonight, when Brighton visit Old Trafford.