Man United still face an uphill battle
Despite a piece of the jigsaw still missing, a portion of Manchester United‘s senior squad have underperformed this term and unless there are major changes in the short-term, the club will remain on course to underachieve for a fifth season on the trot.
Man United started 2022 on a glum and disappointing note by losing out to Wolves, 0-1, at Old Trafford and this was the Reds’ sixth loss in 19 Premier League games, the same amount of defeats the Red Devils incurred all of last campaign.
Worse than the result to Wolves was the uninspired performance on display by the home team, and following a dampening defeat there were widespread reports that a large chunk of players were considering leaving the club, amidst a rough transition to life under Ralf Rangnick.
United's top scorer this term Cristiano Ronaldo made his feelings known in a recent interview with Premier League Productions, with the Portuguese superstar admitting his dismay at United's topsy-turvy form in recent weeks and months.
Talking to presenter Steve Bower, Ronaldo added that he is at the club to win and hinted that unless United put their underachieving antics behind them, he may not stick around for much longer. Ronaldo's 37th birthday is fast approaching, but the five-time Ballon d'Or winner intends to continue playing into his 40s.
As Ronaldo continued recovery from a minor knock, he was unavailable for the FA Cup 3rd Round tie with Aston Villa. Rangnick made five changes to the XI from a disappointing night under the Old Trafford lights seven days prior.
Victor Lindelöf replaced Phil Jones after the English defender had a first senior run-out in more than 800 days against Wolves, and Diogo Dalot came in for Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Fred started over Nemanja Matić, while Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes took the places of Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho.
United went ahead inside ten minutes when Fred whipped a pin-point cross into the danger zone where his midfield partner Scott McTominay comfortably nodded in for the opening goal.
After a 30-yard solo run through United’s non-existent midfield, Emi Buendia whizzed the ball across the six-yard box but Danny Ings failed to make a connection. John McGinn tested David De Gea from 25 yards out, but the Spanish 'keeper was on alert.
On the half hour mark Ollie Watkins capitalised on poor ball control on Lindelöf’s part, but the Villa striker crashed his effort onto the crossbar from close range. At the other end Emi Martinez denied Edinson Cavani's shot on goal.
United‘s half-time lead was a fragile one, and ten minutes after the break Villa had the ball in United’s net. McGinn’s free-kick delivery was cushioned by Ezri Konsa and headed home by Ings, but after consulting VAR for several minutes referee Michael Oliver ruled out the equaliser for offside, with Jacob Ramsey also adjudged to have impeded Cavani at the set-piece.
For a second time the Villains found the back of the net but once again the goal was ruled offside, this time Watkins the culprit.
Uniyed had the chance to seal victory as Greenwood and Rashford breached through Villa’s backline but the former selfishly took the shot on himself, while the latter appeared totally unbothered to salvage the second ball.
With United clinging on to a slender lead, Rangnick made three attacking substitutions which saw Donny Van de Beek, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Elanga enter the fray for Cavani, Rashford and Fernandes. In spite of Steven Gerrard’s best efforts, United claimed a massive win to advance to the 4th Round of the FA Cup.
F/T Man Utd 1 - 0 Aston Villa
Rangnick and United met with Gerrard’s men for a second time in six days as the Reds travelled to Villa Park for a must-win Premier League meeting, after failing to triumph in two of their three preceding league games with Newcastle and Wolves.
McTominay and Shaw were unavailable for the trek to the midlands, after both players incurred a fifth booking of the season in the shortfall to Wolves.
Rangnick fielded a 4-3-3 formation and made three changes from the Cup game, as Shaw and McTominay were replaced by Alex Telles and Matić. Elanga deputised for Rashford who was absent from the matchday squad, as was Ronaldo.
Sancho and Harry Maguire returned to the fold and were named amongst the substitutes.
Elanga, 19, has undoubtedly impressed Rangnick during the interim manager’s first six weeks in the job, and the Sweden under-21 international made three substitute appearances under Rangnick before earning his first league start of the season – three weeks after he penned a new five-year contract at Old Trafford.
United started on the front foot and took the lead as early as the sixth minute. Fernandes netted his first away goal this season after the United skipper orchestrated a shrewd free-kick routine with Telles. The Brazilian gently tapped the ball for Fernandes to advance a few yards and unleash a powerful shot which Martinez remarkably fumbled through his legs and over the goalline.
The Villa goalie appealed that Cavani was impeading his vision but referee David Coote waved away the Argentine’s pleas as the United man was played onside by opposing captain Tyrone Mings.
In the opening half hour United had a spring in their step and enjoyed more promising spells in possession than in recent weeks. Villa still threatened and De Gea was called into action a handful of times before the half interval, with the 31-year-old booming in confidence and producing fantastic stops.
United deservedly took their lead into half-time and just as they seemed to have turned the corner, they reverted back to their old ways. The home team took control of the tempo in the second period, but United doubled their advantage against the run of play with a quarter of the 90 remaining. Fred intercepted a loose pass by Mings and set up Fernandes to rifle in off the roof of the net for his second goal of the night.
Gerrard introduced new Villa signing Philippe Coutinho who went on to cause all sorts of problems for United. Nine minutes after the Brazilian playmaker stepped onto the pitch the deficit was halved courtesy of Ramsey’s unstoppable strike inside the area. Coutinho engineered the move and put it on a plate for the young English midfielder to slash into De Gea's net.
Less than five minutes after, Coutinho and Ramsey switched roles as the ex-Liverpool man turned provider to scorer, to draw level for Gerrard’s men from two goals down.
Elanga made way for Sancho directly after Villa’s first goal, before Lingard and Van de Beek came on for Greenwood and Fernandes with two minutes of regular time remaining.
Van de Beek made his 50th appearance for United, albeit more than 60 per cent of his cameos thus far have been off the bench. The Dutch midfielder is due a league start this season, and has averaged less than 37 minutes per appearance in his first 18 months at the club.
F/T Aston Villa 2 - 2 Man Utd
With Villa’s win at Old Trafford last September, United took a solitary point out of six against the Villains this season – the first time since 2009/10 that a United side have failed to beat Villa in the league.
United’s next outing was a trip to London for the rearranged game with Brentford. The fixture at the Brentford Community Stadium was initially scheduled for 14 December but had been postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak at United.
48 hours prior to the clash in the capital, Ronaldo was at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland as the recipient of the FIFA Special Award in recognition of the Portugal talisman's incredible record of 115* international goals. Ronaldo was also named in the FIFPro World XI for a 15th consecutive year.
Rangnick retained his 4-3-3 shape with Ronaldo returning in place of Cavani as one of two changes, as McTominay filled in for Matić. Sancho did not make the trip to London due to personal reasons.
Brentford were well-organised, sharp on the counter and they posed a major threat at set-pieces and long throws, and the home side looked the likeliest to score for the entirety of the opening 45. De Gea was firm between the posts and single-handedly kept his team in the contest.
United did not have a shot on goal in the first half and their only positive was that the Bees hadn’t yet scored before the break, as the sides reached half-time goalless.
United were almost unrecognizable across two halves after they came out firing in the second. Two minutes into the second period Ronaldo’s headed effort met the top of the goal frame, and ten minutes after the restart did Elanga show brilliant composure to edge United in front. Fred produced another magnificent delivery, leaving Elanga to control the ball and find the net with his head, with Bees' goalie Jonas Lossl left stranded.
With a quarter of the 90 remaining, Greenwood put United two in front after lovely build-up. McTominay picked out Ronaldo on the halfway line and the Portugal man chested the ball for his countryman Fernandes to breeze past Brentford's backline and provide Greenwood with a simple tap-in.
Rangnick showed that he learned his lesson from Villa Park where United let slip a two-goal cushion. The interim manager reverted to a back three as Maguire replaced Ronaldo (who was the least bit please at being elected sacrifice) and Rashford came on for Greenwood.
Soon after did Rashford add to Brentford's misery. McTominay did ever so well to punch through the Bees' midfield, making it all the more easier for Fernandes to play in Rashford who made no mistake in finding the back of the net.
The hosts salvaged a consolation with five minutes left of regular time. A Brentford corner left the ball bouncing all around the goal and Ivan Toney fired home to pull one back for the men in red and white.
De Gea was left visibly frustrated at another clean sheet gone astray, albeit United claimed maximum points in London with their three goal scorers all coming through the club's famed Academy.
F/T Brentford 1 - 3 Man Utd
United’s first league victory of 2022 coincided with the club’s 300th Premier League win away from home, becoming the first club to achieve the feat.
Next up for Manchester United was a crunch clash with David Moyes’ West Ham on Saturday afternoon, with their forthcoming match not for another two weeks. Earlier this season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United escaped the London Stadium with three precious points following late drama involving a late Lingard goal and a De Gea penalty save in the dying minutes.
In United’s first Premier League game at Old Trafford since the New Year's hiccup to Wolves, Rangnick made one change which saw Maguire named in the XI for the first time in 2022 as Lindelöf missed out due to personal reasons. The other 10 starters at Brentford all retained their places with Elanga and Greenwood flanking Ronaldo down the middle.
Cavani returned to the fold after a minor injury and the Uruguayan joined the likes of Rashford, Lingard and Anthony Martial on the bench. Sancho did not make the matchday squad after the winger returned to training on Friday following a family bereavement.
The first half was a quiet one, with both teams trading spells in possession but neither really threatening at goal. The Red Devils’ best chance of the first half came after 19 minutes when Fernandes looked to pick out national teammate Ronaldo in the middle, but the latter mistimed his jump and failed to connect with the ball.
The battle came to life in the second half with both teams desperate for three points. Five minutes in, Alphonse Areola but the Hammers' stopper parried away Fred's attempt for a corner. Maguire and Raphaël Varane put on a terrific display at the back and the French defender was close to netting his first goal for United, but misguided his header at a Telles corner.
Rangnick made three attacking subs, which the German later described as “taking all the risks in the world to win the game”. Elanga, Greenwood and Fred made way for Rashford, Cavani and Martial.
West Ham were inches away from dramatically snatching a late winner, when Tomas Soucek's header flashed across the face of goal with nobody at hand to bundle it in at the far post.
United's fresh legs ultimately combined for the last-gasp winning goal. In the last of three minutes added time, Martial played in the overlapping Cavani who shifted the ball across the six-yard box and Rashford poked it in as the Stretford End absolutely erupted.
Rashford scored in back-to-back matches for the first time since October and being the last kick of the game, West Ham had insufficient time to reply to Rashford's late winner.
F/T Man Utd 1 - 0 West Ham Utd
The slender win over the Hammers meant that United displaced Moyes' boys in fourth place, which up until Saturday evening was unchartered territory for United during Rangnick's tenure. This was also the first time United secured successive wins under their interim boss.
De Gea kept his 162nd clean sheet in a United jersey and the Spaniard now sits outright third in clean sheets for the club, after overtaking Gary Bailey past weekend. Standing in between De Gea and top spot are Peter Schmeichel (180) and Alex Stepney (175).
De Gea has been in sensational form and other than Ronaldo, has been United’s most consistent performer this term. De Gea has made more saves (84) than any other Premier League goalkeeper this season.
Man United upcoming fixtures:
4 Feb - Middlesbrough (H) (FA Cup)
8 Feb - Burnley (A)
12 Feb - Southampton (H)
20 Feb - Leeds (A)
23 Feb - Atlético Madrid (A)
26 Feb - Watford (H)
Paul Pogba returned to training last week after an injury lay-off, having last made a club appearance on October 24 in the humiliating 0-5 defeat by Liverpool, when the French midfielder was sent off after just 15 minutes on the pitch.
Pogba has missed 17 of United’s 30 games across all competitions and, with his contract up in less than six months, the World Cup winner could appear for the club just a handful times more before inevitably leaving on a free transfer for a second time.
Pogba’s fellow countryman Martial has made it clear he intends to move away from Manchester after six-and-a-half years at the club. Following the FA Cup 3rd Round tie with Aston Villa, Rangnick told reporters that the player did not want to be considered for selection at Villa Park, which Martial denied via social media one hour later, saying he “would never disrespect the club and the fans”.
In his media briefing on the eve of United’s trip to Brentford, Rangnick claimed the Martial dispute was “resolved” and that the player was expected to train that day.
In his first six weeks in the job, Rangnick has noticeably been very open and candid in his encounters with the media, whereas Solskjaer was usually quite coy in respect to player-manager relations.
After being an unused substitute at Brentford, Martial represented United vs West Ham, for the first time under Rangnick having last appeared for the club against Arsenal on December 2, for the last two minutes of what was Michael Carrick’s third and final game in charge.
The 26-year-old has enjoyed two good seasons out of seven at Old Trafford and despite the fact that his final cameos donning the United badge have come few and far between, they have all but confirmed the attacker is reluctant to up his work-rate out of possession.
Martial offers next to nothing in terms of pressing and he has crumbled each and every time United have brought in high-profile forwards in recent years – Zlatan Ibrahimović and Romelu Lukaku under José Mourinho, and more recently with Cavani and Ronaldo.
More than once has Martial been portrayed as the rotten egg in the dressing room, and the France international was also at the forefront of ex-manager Mourinho‘s toxic exit from the club in December 2018.
Three-and-a-half years after Mourinho told the club hierarchy to sell Martial, United are now struggling to offload the out of favour forward, which ultimately comes down to their demands to cover his £200,000 wages in full as well as a £6m loan fee.
Jesse Lingard could have fetched up to £25million last summer and now United will be lucky to pocket a loan fee for the 29-year-old, whose deal is also up in the summer.
United’s gaping hole in the centre of the park has been glaringly obvious for a while now and the club are in dire need of a new midfield player immediately, but any high-profile deals are likely to be left for the summer.
Rangnick is believed to be an admirer of Amadou Haïdara, being familiar with the 23-year-old Mali international from Rangnick’s time with the Red Bull group. The Leipzig midfielder would reportedly cost in the region of £30million but is currently away representing his country at the Africa Cup of Nations.
With three-quarters of the January transfer window already behind us, it remains to be seen whether the Man United hierarchy will act to create a spark in the team’s dusted engine room.