Manchester United looked more confused than ever in their 1-1 draw with Newcastle United on Monday evening. It’s fair to say Ralf Rangnick’s attempts to introduce a high-tempo style of vertical attacking football, predicated on a high press and urgency in getting the ball into the final third, is not having an instant impact on performances or results.
United have won two and drawn two of his first four games in charge in all competitions, a reasonable start but hardly inspiring considering this included very lucky 1-0 wins against strugglers Norwich City and Crystal Palace.
It is beginning to look as though his 4-2-2-2 formation just isn’t working; that the system is not suited to United’s best attacking players. In the Newcastle game in particular they looked very unsure of themselves, losing possession 167 times (more than in any match this season) and pressing haphazardly.
Rangnick needs time to ring changes
This is not meant as a criticism of Rangnick, but rather as confirmation that the rebuilding job at United is a huge one – and that things cannot be fixed overnight. A muddled collection of players, mixed with three barren years under the tactically-inept Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has left a squad in need of months – if not years – of coaching in order to get back to the top.
The upshot is that Rangnick is unlikely to get the job full-time, despite being the current favourite 2.47/5 to be United manager at the start of the 2022/23 season. He needed a serious ‘new manager bounce’ to be in contention, and instead we have discovered that his tactical demands will take a long time to get across in training – which is something he simply will not have at any point this season thanks to Covid-related fixture congestion.
United don’t just need a good manager, they need someone with the ability to reshape the club in their image, patiently laying the groundwork while improving under-performing players already at the club. With that in mind, here’s a fresh look at the candidates:
Mauricio Pochettino 3.185/40 still seems unlikely to remain Paris Saint-Germain manager beyond the current season, such is the ill-feeling developing despite a 13-point lead in Ligue Un. Indeed even if he was to lift the Champions League it would be a good time to end on a high, and therefore an approach from United in the summer would be best for everyone.
The Argentine has a lot of credit in the bank, and his six years at Tottenham Hotspur shows he is very much a project manager capable of improving a squad through coaching alone. Better still, he is a flexible manager who is able to adapt his tactics and formation to whatever is at his disposal, as he has shown in the marked difference between the approach of his Spurs and PSG teams.
Despite that, Pochettino broadly aligns with the tactical foundations being put in place by Rangnick. Pochettino believes in urgent vertical football and high pressing, and with Premier League experience and excellent man-management skills he should – given time – be capable of returning United to the summit of English football.
He is the perfect project manager and a man with the tactical attributes to compliment Rangnick. Hiring Pochettino is a no-brainer.
Rangnick has already shown us there are no quick fixes, and under such an intense spotlight it will take a certain kind of character – and someone already respected by the fans – to slowly turn United around. That is why former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers 6.511/2 could be a calamitous appointment; anything but a strong start would lead to toxicity returning to Old Trafford.
Rodgers has changed his approach considerably between clubs, and while this has largely been a strength it might mean he lacks the force or charisma needed to manage United. This is a club in desperate need of a solid identity, and as someone who has never played Rangnick-like football Rodgers isn’t a natural fit here.
What’s more, a recent history of falling down at the final hurdle, both at Leicester City and Liverpool, does not inspire confidence that he would excel in arguably the most high-pressure job in football.
If Pochettino cannot be prised from PSG then Man Utd should turn to Ajax manager Erik ten Hag 7.513/2. He has been on the radar since taking Ajax to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2019 and yet his ability to win titles even after that team was disassembled is arguably just as impressive an achievement. Ajax, after back-to-back Eredivisie triumphs, are currently one point behind PSV.
Ten Hag would be a risky appointment, of course, given his lack of experience at a top club. He would certainly need to have help around him from Rangnick and perhaps Marc Overmars, the director at Ajax whom Man Utd would be wise to poach. But whereas Rodgers is tarnished by history in the Premier League with a rival club, Ten Hag’s freshness could prove to be a blessing in disguise.
His aesthetically-pleasing possession football is the sort of style United want, although it isn’t as quick or counter-attacking as that implemented by Rangnick. For that reason he is far from an ideal choice, but in a weak field he is still the second-best option.
United have reportedly been interested in Zinedine Zidane 17.016/1 for a long time, but the scale of the task – as revealed by Rangnick’s early difficulties – surely rules out the former Real Madrid manager. He has shown little interest in project building, playing a tactically-vague brand of Galactico football at Real and turning down harder jobs since leaving the club.
If that wasn’t reason enough to look past Zidane, he is also the clear favourite to take over at PSG in the summer. His ability to get a collection of individuals to gel in the Champions League is exactly what the French club need. Zidane to United made some sense a year ago, but as the club move more intelligently towards modernisation he is no longer a sensible, or even realistic, option.