Updated: Jan 6
Manchester United lost for the first time under Ralf Rangnick with the Red Devils fighting a losing battle to finish top four in the Premier League.
Man United have collected three wins and a draw in Rangnick‘s first five league games as interim manager, but the German and his coaching staff have their work cut out to get United kicking again.
Following a Covid-19 outbreak amongst first-team players and staff United returned to training on 21 December, seven days after the club’s Carrington training complex was shut down due to a number of positive cases.
With two of their league matches postponed, United returned to action for a belated Boxing Day clash at Newcastle, 16 days after Rangnick's men last had a run-out at Norwich City.
Rangnick made two changes to his XI from the slender win at Carrow Road on 11 December. Mason Greenwood started over Jadon Sancho, and Raphaël Varane returned to the starting lineup in place of Victor Lindelöf. The Sweden captain left the field with breathing difficulties at Norwich, while this was a first outing for Varane since he came off injured at Atalanta on 2 November.
Newcastle took an early lead through Allan Saint-Maximin, after Sean Longstaff took possession off Varane's heavy touch on the ball. Were it not for David De Gea's heroics, United would have fallen further behind as the Spanish 'keeper denied Jonjo Shelvey from distance in the first half, before keeping out Saint-Maximin‘s close-range shot early in the second period.
For the most part United were dull, passive, and struggled to make things happen with the ball. Rangnick made a double switch at the break as Fred and Greenwood were withdrawn for Sancho and Edinson Cavani.
Frustrations grew for the Reds before they drew level through Cavani in the 71st minute. The Uruguyan striker had his initial shot blocked but 'El Matador' took a second bite of the cherry to restore parity for United.
The home team were just inches from taking all the points in the dying minutes, but Jacob Murphy struck the post before De Gea tipped a Miguel Almiron shot over the bar.
F/T Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Man Utd
Rangnick was evidently dissatisfied with the result as well as the performance at St James’ Park and following a disappointing evening in the north-east, several outlets reported that the United squad were struggling to adapt to the manager's methods.
United's final task of 2021 saw them welcome Burnley, as Rangnick made wholesale changes to his lineup. Fernandes was suspended after the Portuguese midfielder incurred a fifth booking of the season at Newcastle, and was replaced by Sancho for the visit of the Clarets. Cavani was restored to the team in place of Rashford, the first time since Spurs (30 October) that the 34-year-old forward made United’s starting XI.
Nemanja Matic started over Fred while the defensive trio of Varane, Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles were all rested, as Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw and Eric Bailly filled in alongside Harry Maguire.
Shaw played a daring ball up-field to Ronaldo as early as the sixth minute but the Portugal forward blazed his 1v1 effort over the goal and into the Stretford End. United went in front just moments later through Scott McTominay who side-footed home from the edge of the area after a heavy first touch from Ronaldo.
This was the earliest that United had scored a goal all season.
Shaw was close to doubling United's advantage, but the England international only found the side netting after a fantastic 50-yard dribble in-field. Shaw was right in the thick of the action and in the 27th minute he fed Sancho, and the winger went on to curl in from eight yards albeit the goal was accredited as a Ben Mee own goal.
Eight minutes later the Stretford End was abuzz once more, this time through Ronaldo who poked home after McTominay's long-range attempt was parried by Wayne Hennessey onto his left-hand upright.
Burnley pulled one back a few minutes after United's third, when Aaron Lennon snatched the ball after a poor first touch by Bailly, leaving the 34-year-old veteran to glide through United's defence and find De Gea's bottom right corner.
United controlled proceedings for the most part yet were unable to add to their lead in the second stanza. McTominay had another long shot denied by Hennessey as the Welsh goalie tipped the goal-bound effort over the bar. United closed out the year with a vital three points, on the eve of Sir Alex Ferguson's 80th birthday.
F/T Man Utd 3 - 1 Burnley
United won little over half of their league outings in 2021, taking all three points in just 21 of 41 Premier League games (51 per cent win-rate) compared to Man City's 36 victories in 44 league meetings last year (81 per cent win-rate).
United took 12 draws and suffered eight losses in the league last year, two more defeats than their noisy neighbours.
Man City netted 113 league goals in 2021, the most English top-flight goals scored in a calendar year. Meanwhile, across town, Man Utd netted 72 league goals at an average of 1,7 goals per game.
Fernandes was United's top goalscorer in 2021 with 18 goals, three more than Cavani and four more than both Greenwood and Ronaldo.
United’s first test of the new year came at home to Wolves, who were just six points adrift of their opponents ahead of a dual in the M16.
Rangnick made two changes from the Burnley game, with Maguire (injury) and Bailly (Africa Cup of Nations) both dropping out the XI. Varane returned to the XI, as did Phil Jones – the English defender named in a first-team lineup for the first time in 708 days.
Fernandes was available after suspension but could only find a place amongst the subs, as compatriot Ronaldo skippered the side for the first time since March 2008.
De Gea was called into action after ten minutes when he had to deny Daniel Podence at his near post. The resulting corner kick led to Ruben Neves unleashing a volley from range, with De Gea once again on site to keep United in the contest.
The away side were the superior team on the night and created the better chances, as United appeared totally flaccid and were utterly devoid of creativity in midfield. Minutes before the break Cavani rocketed an effort over the target, with Greenwood arguably a more viable option to Cavani's right.
Fernandes entered the fray after an hour and struck the crossbar from close range, seven minutes after the Portuguese was introduced. Moments later Ronaldo headed in Fernandes' free-kick but the former was flagged offside.
Fernandes added snippets of creativity that the side had desperately been lacking up until his introduction, but United still battled to find a breakthrough.
Wolves were hunting for the opener and came close when Roman Saiss' free-kick smashed the De Gea's goal frame on 75 minutes. Bruno Lage's men kept pushing and they reaped the rewards with ten minutes remaining, as Joao Moutinho's grounded effort found De Gea's bottom right corner and silenced the Theatre of Dreams.
After two years out of the fold Jones was perhaps United’s sharpest performer on the night, however the 29-year-old was partially culpable for Wolves’ late winner after he headed out Adama Traore’s cross to the edge of the area, where Moutinho rifled home for the visitors.
Fernandes had a last-minute free-kick saved by countryman José Sa, as Wolves secured an historic win at Old Trafford for the first time since 1980.
F/T Man Utd 0 - 1 Wolves
McTominay and Shaw were each booked for a fifth time this season, and both players will miss United’s FA Cup 3rd Round tie with Aston Villa at the weekend.
Man Utd upcoming fixtures:
7 Jan - Aston Villa (H) (FA Cup)
15 Jan - Aston Villa (A)
19 Jan - Brentford (A)
22 Jan - West Ham (H)
The January transfer window officially opened on Saturday and there could be significant movement in and amongst the United camp. Rangnick is rumoured to have financial backing to purchase a new midfield player, whilst there may also be a handful of moves away from Old Trafford.
Anthony Martial has made it clear that he intends to leave the club, and United have reportedly rejected a loan offer from Spanish side Sevilla.
Cavani, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, and Juan Mata have all entered the final six months of their deals in Manchester, and all may officially begin speaking with other clubs as of this month.
Anthony Elanga signed a new five-year deal on Christmas Eve, the Swedish international committing his future to United until 2026. Elanga, 19, made senior appearances for the club in 2021 with his presence in the first-team fold rising particularly since Rangnick’s arrival.
Axel Tuanzebe completed a loan move to Italian side Napoli until the end of the current season, after the 24-year-old defender has featured in less than half of Aston Villa’s 19 league games this season.
Another two young defenders have secured temporary switches away from the club, as Teden Mengi completed a move to Birmingham City for the rest of the season, while fellow Academy graduate Ethan Laird has joined Championship leaders Bournemouth on a short-term deal.
Laird, 20, spent the first half of this season at Swansea City, meanwhile 19-year-old Mengi was loaned out for the second half of last season to Derby County, managed by United’s all-time goal scorer Wayne Rooney.