A Season Lost – A Future to Play For

Another season without silverware does not mean the last stretch is meaningless.

The State of the Union

As the 2021-22 season enters the home stretch, it is impossible to feel, as a Manchester United fan, player, coach, or owner, that the season has been anywhere close to a success.  The season has seen one manager sacked, a lame duck replacement brought in, embarrassingly early exits from three separate cup competitions, and disastrously inconsistent league form that has resulted in the red half of Manchester nowhere near the nail-biting title race unfolding between two of our most hated rivals.

Doom and gloom aside, this team still has a lot to play for, and a future managerial reign hangs in the balance.  Everybody, from the players to the fans, knows that the search for the next manager is well underway. But what type of team, and what type of resources, will that man have when he walks through the door? That is to be completely determined by the actions of the current coach and players over the next two months.

Ralf Rangnick will only be in his current role for only 2 more months’ worth of games, but the results he is able to coax and pull out of his current players will determine the fate of his successor.  Whoever it is that takes over, be it Ten Hag, Poch, Zidane, or Lopetegui will all have to deal with the outcome of this last push.  Money is what makes the modern football world turn.

Gone are the days of players fighting to get to the clubs with the greatest pedigree.  PSG and City’s tactic of throwing money at anything and everything they want has brought massive domestic triumphs. Juventus, Barcelona, and even Real Madrid have faded in stature relevant to where they stood just 10 years ago. The fact that neither of those teams has ever lifted Europe’s highest honors has not prevented players like Neymar, Messi, Hakimi, De Bruyne, and (likely) Haaland from choosing these pastures to strut their considerable talents. 

Cash is King – Manchester United

It is money this team has to play for with 9 games to go. For the incoming manger to have any chance, the $100m from a top four place in the table is crucial.  Without it, he will be walking into a situation firmly behind the eight ball. There will be mountainous expectations, and little resources to come close to meeting them. It will begin yet another cycle of futility and frustration both on and off the pitch. Manchester United will sink more and more into irrelevance both domestically, and internationally; no top tier manager would seriously consider walking himself into a firing line like that, for good reason.

This is, very realistically, one, if not the, most important 9 games in the club’s recent history. While we faced a similar situation in the pandemic delayed season, where top four money was vital, it did not coincide with an ongoing managerial search, where the future quite literally hangs in the balance.

This is not the first time this team has been backed into a corner this season. Facing adversity in various forms they have embarrassingly folded under the pressure.  Sure, the VAR got it wrong in the FA cup. United should have advanced in regulation, but the inability to take down a Championship side in 120 minutes, in a win or go home game was awful.  Yes, the refs bungled it again, when Atleti fouled not just Elanga, and then threw Fred like a sack of potatoes in the buildup to taking the lead at the Stretford end.  And yes, Simeone did what Simeone does, getting his players to agitate, poke, prod and otherwise drive players and supporters mad with frustration, but when the hour came, no man in red rose to meet it.

Manchester United being letdown by their captain

A Way Back

All of that can be forgiven over the next few weeks. Not because it is excusable to capitulate in those circumstances, but because if the rabbit is pulled from the hat, the future can have a ray of hope.

Ralf doesn’t have long for this job, and his players know it.  Regardless, he must inspire them to take something from this season, even if it can only be fourth place. He needs to make some hard decisions, and take a few massive gambles with both team selection, and man management to give his successor a chance.

A Good Time for a Break for Manchester United

There is no longer the time nor room for subtlety. The international break has actually worked out quite nicely for the United manager, if he acts proactively.  He got a front row seat to the passion and charisma of his two Portuguese superstars. Heads held high, they fought for every blade of grass on the pitch. They demanded excellence, and it paid off with a World Cup bid.

He then saw the current United captain booed at his home stadium. Playing for the one team that he’s been able to aptly perform for in over 12 months. Shambles. The last refuge for Harry Maguire has gone, and he must be pulled from the spotlight. He in particular has failed to shine when the lights are brightest. He cannot handle and the responsibility of leading this club.  This decision would be monumental at this stage in the season, but must be done.  United have options at center back that show more fight and grit than the Brit. Standing on ceremony and trying to spare feeling will no longer do.

For all his creative genius with France, Paul Pogba simply doesn’t care about United at all.  We all know he’s had one foot out the door for years. Now he’s outside, waiting in the car, a passenger in recent games, occupying space that must be filled by anyone willing to show a sense of urgency.

One Way Forward for Manchester United

Gegenpressing is, in one form or another, the most successful tactic style in world football today. Every successful club in recent years run a variation of it.  Even Pep, who introduced the globe to Tiki Taka in the mid 2000’s has made the shift.  While City operate with more possession than most teams in the system, they move the ball quickly, and with purpose.  They can score 20 seconds after winning the ball back, and still manage 15 passes in that time. The ball is always moving, and, more crucially, so are his players.

The current Manchester United manager is considered, by his much younger peers, to be the godfather of this style.  He knows what it takes, and what it needs, because he practically invented it!  Tuchel, Klopp, Nagelsmann, Sacchi, all of these managers credit Rangnick for their tactical development. It is time he fields a side that can implement his vision. Gegenpressing requires 9, if not all 10 of the outfield players to be constantly moving. Be it tracking back in defense, or driving forward in possession.  It requires risky passes to advance the ball quickly, trusting that, if the pass is off, everybody will put in the work to cover the mistake, and win the ball back, to start again. 

It takes a total buy in. From the players starting, to the ones waiting in the wings on the bench. In order to be successful for 90 minutes, you need both.  Players like Anthony Elanga, Jadon Sancho, and Scott McTominay can, and will, run with a tireless motor, and all three look to maraud forward, taking chances, and still manage to come back and cover for their teammates. 

Too often we as fans feel the emotion and adrenaline building as United look to move quickly up the pitch. Then a quick one two is played back to Harry Maguire.  Except, every single time, the two in the combination play, doesn’t come.  Instead, Harry panics on the ball, afraid to make the forward pass. He instead holds it, and either gets himself into trouble, or passes it backwards, completely stalling the move.  As a forward, making those runs over and over, never being rewarded with the ball at your feet, is demoralizing. The frustration breeds quickly, and heads drop ruefully. One too many times, and that will poison the mood of the team.  

Both Rafael Varane and Victor Lindelof possess the instinct, and fearlessness, to make that risky pass, and drive the game into the attacking third. On their sides, Dalot and Shaw possess a similar mentality, with both always looking to overlap their respective winger, and make a contribution.

All of these players possess the physical gifts and mental nous to play the way the manager needs. The shackles of “play not to lose” need to be cast aside for good.  We’ve seen evidence in recent weeks of Rangnick’s willingness to go all out to get a win late.  It is time to implement that philosophy from the beginning.  The lads know the drawing board material at this point, now it is about motivation, and effort.

The coach can only do so much however.  Unfortunately, United are thin, and do not have the ability to wantonly swap out underperforming or underwhelming players.  Ralf knows he doesn’t have the ability to withhold places in the squad from players that aren’t working hard enough. The drive for this run in is going to have to predominantly come from those on the field, and looking at the above players, that have the tools to do it.

The Team

De Gea – Fought for his spot, and has arguably been the best keeper in Europe this season.

Dalot – Refused a loan move to be successful at Manchester United, and has had a renaissance in the gegenpressing mold.

Varane – Chose to come to United in the midst of the turmoil, and owns a winning mentality.

Lindelof – Watched his starting spot be taken, then watched his former partner be exactly who he always has been, a mid-table side’s center half that would rather whine for a foul or offsides while play is still going on, rather than deal with the issue after the ball is safely away.

Shaw – Despite injuries, he’s become one of the most industrious options down the wing, and would rather be caught too far forward, than too far back.

Mctominay – The effort and heart this lad puts in game over game hasn’t been seen since Scholes retired the first time. Lung busting runs, both forward and back, gritty challenges that let the opposition know exactly where he is, and not just a willingness, but a desire to bleed for that crest is simply rare to find in the modern game, let alone in this team.

Fred – The McFred pairing has been seen as a weakness in recent times, but when he plays further forward, with Mctominay trusted to hold down the fort on his own, his chemistry with Fernandes has been silky, and he himself has been influential in many key spots recently.

Bruno Fernandes – When he wants to, he can be the puppet master, not only tactically, but emotionally.  His fire, when pointed in the right direction, is palpable, and lifts everyone around him.  When it is not, it can cripple the psyche of his own side, so it is on the manager, and himself, to keep the flame pointed true.

Sancho – Finally settled on his feet, the kid looks like what we were promised last summer. His goals and assists record under Rangnick has been noteworthy, and his pace and drive influential up and down the park.

Elanga – Fresh out of the academy, the youngster doesn’t know enough to fear anyone, or any situation, a mentality that will prove crucial here at the end.

Ronaldo – While he often can be seen on screen walking, or lounging about, his press percentage has actually been better than one would think.  Unfortunately, he turns it on most when the going gets tough, and the players behind him aren’t working as one with him, and the press is broken.

It’s on the Lads

These 11 have the capability of winning out the rest of the year.  That’s the truth.  Every team in the league is beatable on any given day, from top to bottom.  It has been painfully obvious this year that when United are outworked, they often lose.  That can be said about just about every team when they have succumbed this season. 

The points are there to be taken, and a surging, desperate United will put too much pressure on teams like Arsenal and Spurs to match, and they will fold, like they are both desperate to do.  It is time for the players, and the manager to come together, and to look down the line at one another, and be prepared to give everything they have, every minute from here to the end. 10 if not 11 of these players will be with the club next year, if not all 11.  It is time for them to decide what they want that season to look like.

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