Ronaldo rescues United as Rangnick watches on
The Ralf Rangnick era officially gets underway at the weekend as Manchester United welcome Crystal Palace to Old Trafford in the German’s first assignment at the helm.
On 25 November, four days after Ole Gunnar Solskjær was dismissed, it was reported that Man United were set to hire Rangnick as interim manager until the end of the season with a 2-year consultancy role thereafter.
Less than 96 hours after The Athletic broke the news, the club confirmed the appointment of Rangnick, 63, as Solskjaer’s interim successor.
Rangnick is an eminent figure in German football and played a role in mentoring younger coaches including the likes of Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann – currently managing Liverpool, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, respectively.
Upon joining United, Rangnick said “I am excited to be joining Manchester United. All my efforts in the next six months will be on helping these players fulfil their potential, individually and most importantly, as a team”...“Beyond that I look forward to supporting the club's longer-term goals on a consultancy basis” Rangnick concluded.
Solskjaer was axed on the back of a calamitous defeat at Watford culminating in a run of 1 win in 7 league meetings, where United accrued just 4 points from a possible 21 and trailed league leaders Chelsea by 12 points.
Rangnick was unable to immediately secure a work permit and was subsequently absent from the dugout for United’s trip to Chelsea and the home clash with Arsenal, however the renowned professor of gegenpressing was present in the directors' box for the Gunners‘ visit to the Theatre of Dreams on Thursday.
In the first match post-Solskjaer, caretaker Michael Carrick led the team to Spain for a crucial UEFA Champions League tie at Villarreal, with technical director Darren Fletcher donning the earpiece – traditionally the onus of Carrick under Solskjaer.
Carrick selected Anthony Martial over Marcus Rashford, and Bruno Fernandes was dropped for Donny Van de Beek with McFred in the engine room.
Alex Telles was installed to the XI after Luke Shaw was ruled out to a head injury.
Following a similar theme to United under Solskjaer, the opposition were the better team in the 1st half with Unai Emery’s side unlucky to not be ahead – with thanks to a commendable stop by David De Gea in the 27th minute to deny fellow countryman Manu Trigueros and with little threat in United’s attacking third in the opening 45.
De Gea made another athletic save just shy of the hour mark, again keeping out Trigueros shortly before the introduction of Rashford and Fernandes, with Martial and Van de Beek withdrawn. The pair of subs were influential and United began to tick in the last quarter of the 90.
Fernandes picked out Jadon Sancho’s in-field run but the 21-year-old was denied by ‘keeper Geronimo Rulli's right leg. United took the lead with 15 minutes remaining when Fred forced Etienne Capoue to spill the ball, leaving Cristiano Ronaldo to lob Rulli and put the visitors in front.
Sancho sealed the win after a sharp counter attack involving both components of McFred in addition to Ronaldo and Fernandes, with Sancho launching home in off the underside of the crossbar to give the Reds three points and a clean sheet in Carrick‘s first task in the United hot-seat – just a second clean sheet in 25 matches.
Fernandes has given 6 assists in 5 Champions League outings and the Portuguese playmaker needs 3 more to equal the record for most assists in a single UCL campaign.
United were also guaranteed top spot in Group F with a game to spare, following the 3-3 draw between Young Boys and Atalanta.
F/T Villarreal 0 - 2 Man Utd
United next faced a mammoth battle with league leaders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, with Tuchel's team top of the table and with a solitary league defeat in the league this term.
Harry Maguire was unavailable after his double booking in Solskjaer’s swansong at Watford, which forced Carrick to select a centre-back pairing of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf.
Ronaldo was benched as Carrick opted for a midfield diamond containing Nemanja Matić, Scott McTominay and Fred, with captain Fernandes down the middle and Rashford & Sancho on either flank.
Ex-United striker Romelu Lukaku was named on Chelsea's bench after recovering from injury.
United were inches away from falling behind after barely three minutes but for De Gea parrying Callum Hudson-Odoi’s early attempt at goal, atoning for ill defending by Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Lindelöf. Chelsea created the better chances and on the half-hour mark Antonio Rüdiger's long-range effort smashed against the crossbar, United again inches from going behind.
Similarly to the UCL tie at Villarreal, Fletcher was particularly vocal in United’s technical area and for the second successive match United managed to reach half-time without conceding.
United took a surprise lead early in the second stanza when Sancho capitalised on Jorginho's heavy touch on the halfway line after a clearance by Fernandes, and Sancho calmly beat Blues 'keeper Édouard Mendy to bag his first Premier League goal in his hometown and to put the Reds in the driver's seat over the European champions.
Sancho made way for Ronaldo after an hour, just a few minutes before Wan-Bissaka kicked Thiago Silva in United's penalty area with ref Anthony Taylor immediately pointing to the spot.
Jorginho calmly sent De Gea the wrong way, the Chelsea stand-in skipper making amends for his error leading to Sancho's opener.
Carrick swapped Jesse Lingard for Rashford meanwhile Tuchel threw the trio of Lukaku, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic into the mix with 10 minutes to play.
Rüdiger perhaps had the best chance to snatch all three points in the dying minutes albeit the Chelsea defender skied his volley into the Matthew Harding Stand, the last meaningful kick of the contest as United left west London with a valuable point.
F/T Chelsea 1 - 1 Man Utd
Carrick was in charge once more for a crucial rendezvous at home to Arsenal, also led by a former midfielder and club captain in Mikel Arteta.
Maguire returned to the XI, as did Ronaldo together with compatriot Diogo Dalot who filled in for Wan-Bissaka.
Telles retained his spot with Shaw still unavailable; both Shaw and Wan-Bissaka were missing from the matchday squad as Rangnick got a glimpse of Dalot and Telles – who both rarely featured this season under Solskjaer.
Another slow start to the game for Man Utd as the visitors won three corner kicks in the opening 90 seconds of play and were generally on top in the opening stages.
The Gunners went ahead in the 13th minute after Fred clumsily stood on De Gea’s ankle at a corner, leaving Emile Smith Rowe to find the back of the net with the United goalie bound to the floor on his goal line.
The goal was awarded and was the 9th league goal conceded at Old Trafford since Man Utd last scored (Martial vs Everton, 2 October).
Arsenal sat back after going in front and United started to show more intent about themselves. Fernandes levelled just before the half interval through smart footwork by Sancho on the left, with Fred putting it on a plate for the Portuguese midfielder to restore parity and end his longest drought at the club with a goal on his 100th appearance.
De Gea made an integral save early in the 2nd half to keep United in it and just over 5 minutes later Ronaldo gave the hosts the lead, this time down the right channels through the combination of Dalot and Rashford, with the Stretford End at the forefront to embrace Ronaldo's 800th career goal for club and country.
United were not ahead for long before Martin Ødegaard drew the visitors level with almost a carbon copy of United's second goal, as Gabriel Martinelli fed Ødegaard with a low ball in from the right wing and the ball crashed into the inner side netting with De Gea left helpless, less than three minutes after Ronaldo struck.
Ødegaard later brought down Fred in Arsenal's box but the challenge was waved away by Martin Atkinson before VAR Andre Marriner instructed Atkinson to observe the monitor in the Referee Review Area and subsequently a spot-kick was awarded by referee Atkinson.
The cool and composed Ronaldo stepped up and rifled home down the middle, netting his 801st goal and placing Carrick's men in the lead for a second time on the night.
Arteta introduced Bukayo Saka, Alex Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah but United did enough to hold on for maximum points – Arteta lost to the Red Devils for the first time as a manager, and United beat the Gunners in the league for the first time since April 2018 under Jose Mourinho.
F/T Man Utd 3 - 2 Arsenal
Within minutes after the final whistle on Thursday evening, the club confirmed that Carrick would leave the club after 16 years at Old Trafford as a player, captain, coach and manager.
Carrick said: “After a lot of thought and deliberation, I have decided that now is the right time for me to leave. I am, and will always be, a fan and will come to as many matches as possible. I would like to wish Ralf, the staff, the players and the fans all the best for the future”.
Rangnick's first game in charge comes this weekend at home to Crystal Palace as Patrick Vieira's men come to town for a date in the M16.
Currently 12 points behind leaders Chelsea and 10 points adrift of 3rd-placed Liverpool, Man United are a far cry in the Premier League title race but should not so easily be written off in the Champions League come the second half of the season, now with a world-class football mind in charge of a talented and hungry group of players.
United are set to conclude their UCL group on Wednesday night with the visit of Swiss side BSC Young Boys, who previously got the better of Solskjaer’s 10-man Reds in Bern 12 weeks ago.
United are already confirmed as group winners with Young Boys in need of victory if they have any chance of making the Europa League knockouts.
Due credit for Rangnick’s appointment is the club’s Director of Football John Murtough, instilled into his role in March this year reputedly on Solskjaer’s recommendation.
Murtough and Rangnick were pictured at Old Trafford on Wednesday and were sat alongside one another in the directors' box on Thursday for the Arsenal game, and the pair will be influential in appointing a permanent manager in the summer.
United have lacked football-oriented figures upstairs particularly since former CEO David Gill left office in the same summer as Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement eight-and-a-half years ago.
Ed Woodward is serving out the longest notice period in history, with the 50-year-old investment banker expected to step down as United’s chief executive at year-end after tendering his resignation in the wake of the foiled European Super League in April.