WIN OVER BRENTFORD DOES NOT SOLVE MANCHESTER UNITED’S PROBLEMS
There is no end to the troubles that Manchester United find themselves in. Although the win over Brentford last Wednesday must have eased the pressure that they would very rightly have been feeling, the draw they played out against Aston Villa in Birmingham last week has expounded their problems, and interim manager Ralf Ragnick — quite naturally — has to take all the blame. In a game that did not feature their star forward Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United were drawn ahead by a Bruno Fernandes brace, only to see it nullified by two late strikes by Jacob Ramsey and loanee Philippe Coutinho.
The defeat to Middlesbrough in the Emirates FA Cup competition last Friday will come as a further blow to the German and his team. In that game, Manchester United managed to control almost every aspect but lacked in killing it off with skill. Countless chances fell by the way of the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho (who of course, converted one), Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes, but none were taken up. Manchester United appeared to be a little jaded and out of touch. Ragnick must have been left with his head in his hands, and one cannot begrudge the wily German for once.
There is no denying that the victory they snatched against Brentford in the capital consisted of good football on their behalf, but one must remember the thrashing that they received in the hands of their small-time opponents in the first half. It was only in the second half that the Red Devils came together and fired themselves up. These kinds of performances are coming too far and few between for the club’s supporters’ liking. It needs to be said that this recent victory does not imply that all the problems at the club have been solved.
How difficult is it to get this Manchester United team to win, or even compete at the highest level? Such questions must send shivers down the neck of club legends such as Sir Alex Ferguson, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, who follow the fortunes of Manchester United closely. We will be guilty of living in a fool’s paradise if we think that the Red Devils still command as much respect (or fear) as they did a few years ago. Their problems take root right from the top of the club to its bottom, and singling out one branch of this particularly rotten tree would do the Reds more harm than good in the long run.
When Ragnick was brought in to replace the faltering Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in early December, supporters of Manchester United along with a not insubstantial number of pundits had believed that he would be a messiah of sorts, and lead the club out of the abyss that it has dug itself into. There is no disrespect intended to Ragnick, but it needs to be remembered that even the ebullient Louis van Gaal and serial-winner Jose Mourinho, who must certainly be many notches above him in the managerial pecking order, found it difficult to turn the Red Devils’ around. Does the problem lie with the manager at all?
Ragnick is perhaps the most suitable coach that the club could have found at present. Although not as successful as Mourinho had been, his philosophy, if bought into, may make the Red Devils more assertive than they have been since the famous Portuguese left. Solskjaer, for whom the job got too big in the end, did not leave with any particular imprint of his own; his Manchester United team was content with holding out in defence and attacking on the counter. Under Mourinho at least, United had started playing out from the back and ingrained in themselves the ability to regroup and attack from the offing as and when they lost the ball. Central midfielders played a huge role under Mourinho, and Scott McTominay was singled out for a lot of praise by the former.
Ragnick has introduced a relatively new system of 4–2–2–2, wherein the wings get nullified. This means that the likes of Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood- two bright stars on the horizon for both the club and England- constantly find themselves with little roles to play.
Bruno Fernandes is the fulcrum of this Manchester United attack, as he was under Solskjaer as well, and as he will be for any team he plays, but there is only so far that individual brilliance can carry you in a competition where every opponent is constantly improving and learning. It is not rare that we see Fernandes being shadowed by a couple of solemn-looking and burly opposition central midfielders, who annul the threat he poses thoroughly.
Marcus Rashford’s indifferent form has meant that old warhorses Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani have shouldered Manchester United’s attack; it will not be long until either of them has a breakdown of sorts. Anthony Martial’s public disagreement with Ragnick (or was it the other way round?) has not helped matters, and the club will not be sad to see him leave in the ongoing transfer window.
The lamentable fate that has befallen poor Donny van de Beek must not be accredited solely to Ragnick; the Dutchman had not found favour with his predecessor either. Does this imply a problem with Manchester United’s recruitment policy? Van de Beek was not purchased for an insignificant sum, and it is an accepted fact that United need strengthening in central midfield, so why is it that he constantly finds himself left out?
It is an endless marvel for supporters of the club to see the likes of McTominay and Fred get selected match after match even after the duo make costly errors and are not especially known to take the game forward by feeding their more attack-minded colleagues. Neither McTominay nor Fred can press with very high intensity, and their physical presence is negligible.
Fred still can find open spaces (and he will be delighted by the fact that he has bagged three assists in three games), but McTominay, despite being the more technical of the two, often goes into his shell, and seeks the comfort of the central defenders when he should be the one cajoling them. It is a sad reality that neither of them can unlock defences or even keep a tight leash on an attacking rival from the opposition.
Van de Beek was the player his former club Ajax relied upon to break opposition defences when things got tight, and though such a role is played by Fernandes here for Manchester United, there is little evidence to support the fact that the Dutchman cannot play in a deeper midfield role. Nemanja Matic has run his race, and the less it is said about Paul Pogba, the better.
Manchester United boast of a defensive unit (apart from a world-class goalkeeper who has made a stunning comeback to form this season) consisting of a winner of a World Cup and several Champions Leagues, and two World Cup semi-finalists, and yet it is seen that they concede goals from regrettable angles.
No defence can be considered as unbreakable, but is a clean sheet now and then too much for the supporters to ask for if they see the likes of Luke Shaw, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan Bissaka lineup in front of David de Gea game after game? Ragnick has started dropping Maguire from the team altogether by now, with rumours rife that he does not want either of him or Shaw in the team anymore. Victor Lindelof, the Swedish defender who partnered Maguire in the Solskjaer-era, may have to compete with Eric Bailly to work with Varane in the heart of Manchester United’s defence from now on.
WHAT IS THE WAY OUT FOR MANCHESTER UNITED?
United have indeed lost only one game since Ragnick has taken charge- a distressing one-goal loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers, but it is the lack of depth that the team is showing that has got everyone concerned. There is no style distinct to the Red Devils, and one just needs to look at their rivals Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea to see what a big difference that can make. For all the talk of counter-pressing and trying to gain the ball as soon as they lose it, United have done that only in one game under the German professor so far, in his first game in charge, against Crystal Palace. Was it just a gimmick that they were showing off to their new boss?
It is hard to understand what exactly is going wrong with Manchester United. However, it is amply clear to everyone who cares for the club that not every tiny detail can be fixed by signing new players. The club had one of the finest transfer windows in recent times when they signed Ronaldo, Varane and Sancho in the summer, and on any given day, their starting lineup has the prowess to win the league, at least on paper.
If the issue lies with coaching, then the likes of Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, who partnered Solskjaer in his dubious times, have been shown the door. Ragnick has brought in his staff, so the supporters need to have a little more patience for the results to come in. If the issue, however, lies with commitment, then the players need to look hard at themselves in the mirror. It is time that they start responding to the faith that the supporters and other stakeholders of the club have put in them.
The systemic rot that has set in Manchester United goes well beyond Ragnick. It is an accepted fact that life at Old Trafford can be thankless; he can do little other than adapt accordingly. Though he is only an interim, if there are harsh calls that he needs to make, then they must be done. Such players who have little influence in the dressing room and yet take home bulging wage packets must be given the boot.
It is another sad fact that England international Maguire, who was made captain of the club by Solskjaer, does not have any leadership abilities to speak of. His form makes him an uncertain starter in the eleven, and it would be much better to see either Fernandes, de Gea or Ronaldo as skipper. Ragnick’s methods will take time to get ingrained at Old Trafford, but a common philosophy and belief that this is indeed the way out will help the club tide over the crisis that has befallen it.
In the recently concluded winter transfer window, Manchester United managed to offload the likes of Donny van de Beek, Amad Diallo and Anthony Martial on loan deals to Everton, Rangers and Sevilla respectively. They, however, did not allow Jesse Lingard to leave and this has shaken the confidence of the Englishman. The Red Devils also did not bring in any new players, which means that their squad depth has become exceedingly low at the moment, with only 25 players for their manager to choose from. In the summer transfer window, Manchester United must go in for strengthening their midfield and try to target the likes of Declan Rice or Ruben Neves. Only then can Manchester United compete again in the Premier League.