When Ralf Rangnick arrived at Manchester United last month, the interim manager was expected to reinvent the philosophy from a lethargic and confused style under the previous regime to his trademark gegenpressing.
“This is the only way we can compete at this level,” said Rangnick earlier this month.
“Whenever you watch games, even if it’s not the top teams, they play with intensity, physicality, energy and they sprint. This is what we have to do. We have to develop into this kind of team.”
The question is why United haven’t managed to do it other than for 30 minutes against Crystal Palace in Ragnick’s first game in charge.
Since then, the statistics show the Old Trafford club haven’t sustained a high-pressing approach and are arguably playing worse than in the last days of Rangnick’s predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Taking total pressures applied by outfield players in the middle and final thirds, Rangnick’s United racked up 114 in that 1-0 win over Palace on 5 December.
That number had dropped to just 53 by the German’s fourth game in charge against Burnley. In Wednesday’s win at Brentford, it was 57.
The number of times United regain possession within five seconds of applying pressure has also fallen. Having reached 55 against Palace, it has slowly declined to 34 against Brentford.
A Rangnick failure?
The dwindling numbers show that Rangnick has failed to instil his philosophy as expected.
But it would be unfair to solely blame the manager. The players were too passive under Solskjaer and, after a brief improvement under his successor, the aggression and positivity has now dissipated.
Rangnick having an expiry date as interim manager naturally weakens his authority and could be a factor in United’s lack of application. That in itself may be due to players not being either mentally or physically suited to such a demanding style.
The former Red Bull sporting director appears to have compromised, switching from his favoured 4-2-2-2 to a 4-3-3. But although United beat Brentford, there was no clear style of play, with a mix of counter-attacks, long balls and sideways passing.
It is an issue that the man charged with bringing a philosophy back to Old Trafford has dropped his plans after just eight games, and putting that plan on hold in the name of short-term results is risky.
United still have the FA Cup, Champions League and a top-four Premier League finish to aim for but only the coming months will tell whether Rangnick, who is set to stay on as a consultant after the summer, has made the right choice.
Identity has been an issue for the club ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. In the long run, Rangnick must find a way to give this side a style to stick with if United are to become a top team again and escape Ferguson’s shadow.
Manchester United pressing stats
|Total Pressures in middle and final third||Successful gaining possession within 5 seconds of pressure|