Man Utd’s attack becomes Rangnick’s most pressing concern

Man Utd manager Ralf Rangnick has applied an emergency fix to the Red Devils’ defence. Now he must address their sloppiness in attack as a priority…


Consecutive clean sheets offer indisputable proof of progress in Ralf Rangnick’s first two Premier League games in charge of Manchester United, even if the eye-witness testimonies may dispute the facts.

United ground out another 1-0 victory to make it six points from six under the German. Shut-out aside, there were other facets of the Red Devils’ performance that spoke of Rangnick’s impact, but the new manager will reflect through the journey back to Manchester on the obvious work ahead.

Parachuted in to mend a broken United side amid a flurry of fixtures, Rangnick has to prioritise his tasks. He has made no secret of his primary objective: to fix a defence that prior to last week had conceded in every game since April.

His rearguard was sorely tested by a Norwich offence that has struggled to stretch many defences this season. Had the Canaries carried a sharper cutting edge, Rangnick would likely be rueing his first dropped points. And that he isn’t is down in no small part to three brilliant saves from David De Gea.

Ahead of the now-undisputed No.1, United’s back four were clearly still getting to grips with Rangnick’s tweaks. The manager wants his defence starting from a higher line and each defender had moments where they were sucked backwards into bad habits. Mercifully for United, Norwich were too nice to punish them.

Rangnick returned to last week’s full-backs after giving Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw the chance to audition for their old roles in midweek and the manager will see no reason to tinker again at Brentford on Tuesday, with Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot offering another largely positive impressions, even if they were stopped from bombing forward at will by Norwich’s plan to switch play at every given opportunity.

Manchester United have made 20+ tackles in three Premier League games this season:

◉ 24 vs Crystal Palace
◉ 21 vs Norwich
◎ 21 vs Chelsea

Two of the three games have been under Ralf Rangnick.

— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 11, 2021

So with a solid base, against the Premier League’s bottom side, the onus was on United to dictate the play and pick holes in the division’s most porous defence, one depleted by injuries before kick-off and hampered further still with Grant Hanley’s injury-enforced withdrawal.

That they struggled so clearly to do so will be huge concern for Rangnick, who may have to rethink his priorities as the Christmas programme approaches.

With Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford playing as a front two, supported by Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes as wide 10s, United were too easily shackled by Norwich, aided by some appallingly-scruffy passing and control in the Red Devils’ final third.

Much of the criticism of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure centred on the absence of any patterns of play in United’s attack. It seemed too often that the forward players were left to make it up on the fly, and while there is always a place for improvisation and spontaneity around the opposition goal, United’s forwards looked like a gaggle of individuals running either away from or into one other rather than an attacking force taking cues from one another.

There were sporadic occasions when it seemed the forward players looked in cohesion, but that tactical improvement was ruined by sloppy technique. So often United’s passing lacked the necessary timing, weight and even accuracy. Balls were played the wrong side of a team-mate or were too heavy to retrieve. Perhaps that is understandable in such soggy, slick conditions, but it absolutely should not be acceptable from any United team.

In the first half alone, Fernandes lost possession 17 times, with 36 per cent of his total touches. He maintained that rate in the second period finishing his 88 minutes with 74 touches, with which he gave the ball away with 27 of them. Ronaldo lost the ball with 17 of his 52 touches; Rashford 17 times from 50 touches.

With Fernandes, it is a more extreme example of a characteristic United fans have become accustomed to. The Portuguese playmaker is adventurous in his passing, which was revelatory when he first arrived at Old Trafford. United were helped to sign him because many of his other suitors were put off by the number of times he lost possession.

But no attack can thrive with such profligate passing on a consistent basis, especially when Fernandes and Sancho were dropping so deep to take the ball off midfielders and centre-backs not yet in tune with Rangnick’s forward thinking when it comes to distribution.

That must be the next job on Rangnick’s to do list now he has got his feet under the table at Old Trafford. And it won’t be a quick fix. Making any side harder to beat is often simpler than improving the potency of a misfiring attack.

As Rangnick has said, his forward line boasts some of the best talent in Europe, certainly in terms of reputation. Sharpening its edge to justify the hype should now become a more immediate priority.

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