Manchester United’s season continues to go from bad to worse, and with every step forward they take another two steps back.
March was do or die for Man United and just over halfway into the month they are already dead and buried. The dampening and deflating home defeat to Atlético Madrid on Tuesday means that United will end trophy-less for a fifth season on the trot and are edging closer to elapsing the club’s longest trophy drought going back four decades. United went 2,191 days without celebrating trophy success from 1977-1983.
The earliest possible date that United can next capture silverware is 26 February 2023 (the presumed date of next season’s League Cup final) by which time 2,104 days will have passed since the club's last trophy coup. Skip forward to the end of May next year and that duration would have stretched to 2,198 days – officially longer than the barren run preceding United's 1983 FA Cup triumph.
José Mourinho and United lifted the Europa League in Stockholm on 24 May 2017 and since then all of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City have been champions of England. Liverpool have also been crowned European champions for a sixth time while Chelsea hoisted both the Champions League and Europa League two years apart.
United recently had a dreadful encounter with Man City as the league leaders and reigning champions showcased their class and impetus while teaching their neighbours a lesson or two in football. United previously won both their last two league games at the Etihad under former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Three changes were made from United’s team that started in the goalless draw with Watford eight days prior. Harry Maguire returned to the lineup in place of Raphaël Varane who tested positive for Covid (as did Luke Shaw). Cristiano Ronaldo was ruled out of the trek across town to the Etihad and the forward traveled to his native Portugal to nurse a recurring hip flexor injury. The third and final change saw Scott McTominay start over Nemanja Matić.
In the 50th Manchester derby of the Premier League era, Kevin De Bruyne put the hosts in front inside five minutes thanks to some calamitous defending of City's penetrating attacks. Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva drove down the left channels before the latter crossed low through the legs of Aaron Wan-Bissaka's legs for an unmarked De Bruyne to slot the ball clean through Maguire's legs and into the United goal.
Sancho cancelled out De Bruyne's opener halfway into the first period after Paul Pogba played a splendid pass from the centre circle. Sancho got the better of both Kyle Walker and Rodri for the 21-year-old winger to curl in past Ederson and find the net at his old stomping ground.
Six minutes later De Bruyne gave City the lead for a second time, featuring defending that was even worse than at the opening goal. Elanga's clearance was cut out by Cancelo and then Foden flicked the ball over the head of a protruding Victor Lindelöf. Foden's initial shot was saved by David de Gea, but Maguire failed miserably to clear his lines and the ball ricocheted around United's penalty area like a pinball before De Bruyne slashed it over the line, leaving three United players bound to the floor.
Despite falling behind twice United put in a considerably spirited first-half performance and they needed to keep that energy in the second, but Guardiola duly picked out and nullified United’s game plan. Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard were introduced after the hour but neither had any lasting impact.
City doubled their advantage in the 68th minute through a shrewd set-piece routine. De Bruyne delivered a corner kick to the edge of the box where Riyad Mahrez was on hand to connect first time on the half-volley and find de Gea's bottom right corner.
Instead of fighting back United completely gave up. de Gea did well to keep out Cancelo's acrobatic effort but Mahrez hit the final nail into United’s coffin deep into stoppage time. Mahrez was initially flagged by the linesman but VAR intervened and awarded the Algerian his second goal of the afternoon. City painted the town blue and took Guardiola’s men 22 points clear of an utterly abject United outfit.
F/T Man City 4 - 1 Man Utd
Guardiola's side barely allowed for United to have a sniff of the ball and the away side failed to register a single shot during the second half. The hosts had 79% possession in the second stanza including a remarkable 92% in the final 15 minutes. Former United captains Roy Keane and Gary Neville said of their team’s performance that it was “embarrassing” and that they “threw in the towel”.
Next for the Red Devils was a home clash with Tottenham who had won three of their last four league games. Rangnick made five changes with Ronaldo, Varane, Rashford, Matić and Diogo Dalot all returning to the starting XI. Wan-Bissaka, Lindelöf and Elanga dropped to the bench. McTominay and Fernandes did not make the traveling squad, with the latter missing out after testing Covid positive.
Dean Henderson was in line to make a first league start of the season on his 25th birthday after de Gea was reported unwell on the morning of Spurs’ visit to Old Trafford, however it later emerged the Spanish stopper delivered a false positive test for Covid and he was deemed available for selection.
Ronaldo marked his return with a bang, scoring a sensational strike from 25 yards out. Varane found Fred in space and the Brazilian produced a delightful first-time flick for Ronaldo, and the Portugal man found the top corner, leaving Hugo Lloris with no chance of keeping out his thunderbolt.
Spurs grew into the game as their wing-backs Doherty and Reguilon caused havoc down the flanks. The away side pushed for an equaliser and found it with ten minutes to play in the first. A cross by Dejan Kulusevski’s was blocked by Alex Telles‘ left hand and referee Jon Moss immediately pointed to the spot. de Gea dived the right way but Harry Kane‘s penalty was far too powerful and precise to be kept out as the England skipper found the bottom corner to notch his 177th Premier League goal.
United retook the lead less than three minutes later. Ronaldo doubled up when Sancho put it on a plate for the United no.7 to tap in for his second of the game. The 37-year-old’s close-range effort was his 806th goal for club and country, making him the outright top goalscorer in football history.
Ahead of the second half Rangnick did not make any tactical changes to counteract Spurs maximising their width with persistent diagonal balls. It was all square again with under 20 minutes remaining when Reguilon’s ball into the middle was met by Maguire who helplessly slashed it into his own net. Elanga replaced Rashford after the hour mark before Rangnick made an extremely attacking change in the aftermath to Spurs’ second equaliser as he brought on Edinson Cavani for Matić.
Ronaldo put United in front for a third time of the night when he connected with Telles’ corner at the Stretford End, scoring his 807th goal and seeing out a massively important three points for United. Immediately after sealing his 59th hat-trick at club level, Ronaldo made way for Lindelöf as Rangnick eventually reverted to a back three to keep Spurs at bay in the final stages. United held on for a crucial and invaluable three points against a fellow top-four rival.
F/T Man Utd 3 - 2 Tottenham
Speaking on Ronaldo directly before United’s second leg tie with Atlético Madrid, Rangnick said: “I would like to congratulate [Cristiano] for becoming the all-time leading goalscorer in world football, a landmark he made his own with his hat-trick on Saturday”.
Rangnick retained eight of the XI from the Spurs game including the entire back four. Elanga and McTominay were restored to the lineup in place of Rashford and Matić. Pogba dropped to the bench on his 29th birthday as Fernandes returned after recovering from Covid.
Atlético captain Koke was named in Diego Simeone’s XI after missing the first leg in Madrid. Antoine Griezmann replaced Angel Correa from the lineup three weeks ago, and Rodrigo De Paul came in for the injured Sime Vrsaljko.
United started on a positive note and the first half hour was promising, particularly the opening ten minutes. After salvaging a draw in the away leg, Elanga came close to breaking the deadlock in the 13th minute at Old Trafford but Atlético ‘keeper Jan Oblak inadvertently kept out the close-range effort with his face. Three minutes later de Gea saved De Paul's shot from long-range.
After 30 minutes Atlético grew into the game and Joao Felix scored but it was ruled out for offside against Marcos Llorente. Less than ten minutes later, the Spanish side went ahead when Renan Lodi nodded in at the far post. Dalot had no idea about the wing-back's run into the area and the goal stood.
United were behind at the break and in need of a mega performance in the second half. Simeone's side knew they need not anything more from the tie and their game plan for the second 45 was simply to sit back and restrict United moving forward.
United's finest chance came just before the hour when Dalot's cross found Sancho who connected sweetly with a volley but it narrowly went the wrong side of Oblak's far post. Shortly after that chance went amiss, Rangnick made a triple sub with Fernandes, Elanga and McTominay withdrawn for Pogba, Rashford and Matić. Cavani subbed on for Fred with 15 minutes to go.
Referee Slavko Vincic made a handful of dubious decisions and he fell for every trick orchestrated by Simeone and his players. United were getting increasingly frustrated and they battled to keep cool heads. Matić and Dalot were booked in the final ten minutes of regular time, as was technical director Darren Fletcher.
Vincic was hesitant to dish out yellow cards, booking two Atléti players despite the away side conceding 12 fouls on the night. Additionally, Simeone's players went to ground at any given chance regardless of how soft they were challenged. Four minutes were added on despite almost four times as much time gone to waste throughout the second half.
Simeone's team held on and the Atlético dashed down the tunnel immediately after the final whistle and he was on the receiving end of beverages thrown by aggravated home supporters.
Atlético are by no means renowned for playing an attractive brand of football and their strategy of sitting back to allow for United to keep possession was clear. Their slender win culminated in United being eliminated for the sixth time in their last eight Champions League knockout ties.
F/T Man Utd 0 - 1 Atlético Madrid (1-2 agg)
United’s fate is no longer in their hands, and their chances of being part of next season’s Champions League are minuscule. Arsenal sit one point above United with three games in hand.
Atlético were United’s last opposition in March, as club football takes a pause for the first major international break of the year. Upon their return to action next month Rangnick and his red army host Leicester City who ended the Red Devils’ 29-game unbeaten run in the reverse fixture six months ago. United also travel to Everton before hosting Norwich over Easter weekend, and they close out April with a visit to top-four hopefuls Arsenal.
United were scheduled to visit Anfield this weekend but the fixture has been pushed back a month due to Liverpool’s participation in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Sunday.
Man United upcoming fixtures
2 April - Leicester City (H)
9 April - Everton (A)
16 April - Norwich (H)
19 April - Liverpool (A)
23 April - Arsenal (A)