(Rang)Nick of time

Two wins against differing tactical sides in Brentford and West Ham United brought much needed optimism about the remainder of this season and dispelled doubts about Ralf 'the professor' Rangnick's mettle being out of day-to-day coaching for majority of last decade. His tactical switch to 4-3-3 but with one holding number 6 and two number 8's in these games, and getting the result brought cheer to fans who were a bit depressed after he fell back to Solskjaer's 4-2-3-1 at Villa and Wolves to salvage those two games. Big question now is how will Rangnick integrate Paul Pogba into that system after the Frenchman returns from injury in time for the FA Cup fourth round clash against Middlesbrough.

After suffering his first loss to Wolves and scraping through Villa in FA Cup, Rangnick picked Anthony Elanga to start in the next three games drawing one and winning two. The young Swedish international's energy galvanised the left of front three as had when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer introduced Mason Greenwood(right) and Louis van Gaal put his faith in record youth signing Anthony Martial. Elanga is starting ahead of much fancied Jadon Sancho and Amad Diallo says a lot about the effort the lad has put in to get noticed in training and then perform on the big stage when given that opportunity. His composure to score his first goal of this season from a tight pass from Fred while showing awareness about goalkeeper's position was simply awesome. United fans responded in kind by having a new song based on a fav song from my childhood SNAP!'s 'Rhythm is a dancer'. German band is having a revival of this classic song in its 30th year of release, and under a German boss at United.

Rhythm is a dancer, Anthony Elanga
Try to stop him if you dare
He came from Scandinavia
To be United's saviour
Scoring goals from everywhere
Wooooah its Elanga
Wooooah you can feel it in the air
Wooooah its Elanga

Futher goals by Greenwood and then Rashford coming off the bench sealed a memorable 3-1 away win at perhaps the best atmosphere in this season's Premier League at newly promoted Brentford. Manchester United last played them in the first season after the war in 1946-47 winning the home fixture 4-1 with Jack 'Gunner' Rowley hat-trick and drawing the away match 0-0. Brentford under Thomas Frank outplayed and outpressed United in the first half who only survived thanks to yet another masterclass from David de Gea in goal and rightly proclaimed "We destroyed them in the first half, they didn't have a sniff, three huge chances and there could only have been one winner of this game. They are unbelievably lucky. I know all the stuff about taking chances. They changed the system against little Brentford."

In the closing stages after United led 2-0 Rangnick substituted Cristiano Ronaldo in 71st minute for Harry Maguire to play three at the back. This was in direct response to late second half capitulation against Aston Villa after being 2-0 up to draw 2-2. Ronaldo was furious and Rangnick was seen explaining to perhaps the greatest player of all time. Media latched on to this and Anthony Martial's comments to press Rangnick who was calm to douse any flames and handled both episodes well.

Marcus Rashford regaining his form to score his first goal since October and then score the matchwinner in the last minute against West Ham will give a big boost to United's chase for the top four. That last minute goal involved United's all three substitutes Martial, Cavani and Rashford. Such an attacking change to go all out for a result against a quality side like West Ham is reminiscent of United under Sir Alex Ferguson. Harry Maguire battling for his position got a start ahead of Victor Lindelof who had a breakin at his home when United were playing Brentford and rightfully chose to be with his family. Maguire had a great start to the game and dominated aerially to fight for his place in the starting XI despite being the captain. Thats the scale of transformation done by Rangnick in short time.

David de Gea had a clean sheet at last to show for his tremdous saves to move ahead of Gary Bailey to become Manchester United's third best keeper in terms of clean sheets; David de Gea's tally is now 162 just shy of Alex Stepney at 175 and Peter Schmeichel at 180. David de Gea was part of Sir Alex Ferguson's last Premier League trophy win, won the FA Cup under Louis van Gaal, and won League Cup and UEFA Cup under Jose Mourinho to easily be the best player at United of the last decade.

Anthony Martial has just agreed a loan move to Sevilla; good luck to him and hope he fulfills his potential on a consistent basis. Amad Diallo has yet to confirm his option of loan move, Jesse Lingard is being approached by Newcastle, Eric Bailly had an enquiry by AC Milan... Outgoings raise expectations for a defensive midfield cover for Scott McTominay as cut-price deals for secondary targets like Denis Zakaria and Boubacar Kamara are available. While both primary targets Declan Rice and Reuben Neves had nice things to say about Old Trafford recently after their games against United, the club is unlikely to sanction a purchase of a player out of uncertainity over its manager in the summer. Club under new CEO Richard Arnold is now likely to start the process to appoint a permanent successor to interim Ralf Rangnick ostensibly to avoid Brian Glanville's favourite quote of Karl Marx "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

Reality check for Rangnick

Ralf Rangnick's famed gegenpressing lasted just 30 minutes against Crystal Palace and was not seen again! The imbalance in the massive squad was very quickly laid bare. But the more serious issue was the lack of effort on display by the players. Soon the dressing room unrest became the media frenzy. Spotlight was on the new coaching setup who were settling in after the exodus of coaches under Solskjaer, and the outbreak of Covid-19 that forced the closure of Carrington for few days did not help either. The appalling game against Newcastle (13 shots apiece for both clubs) and defeat at home to Wolves (only 9 shots compared to 19 from visitors) brought the reality check. That loss to Wolves a first at Old Trafford since 19, August 1980 also the first loss of Rangnick's reign after just six games (3Wins, 2Draws, 1Loss).

As Sir Matt Busby used to point out its about the method and the progress, Ralf set out as 4-2-2-2 as a template for his method but disowned it after being out played by Wolves and move to three at the back. And still lost. This is where the new coach is not sticking to the method but disbanding it to be accommodative. That is an immediate betrayal which can be pardoned only if he goes back to it after getting the profile of players needed to play in a very specific way. If not the rot will be masked to rear its head again. In stark contract Wolves players were following instructions to the tee from the coach Bruno Lage who clearly explained how his team used the spaces to outdo United in post match interview. Phil Jones made a solid comeback with a good performance against Wolves, his first competitive match in nearly two years!

The most pressing shortage is in the central defensive midfield role or the engine room that connects the defensive with attack or in short controls the game. Its shocking to think that United would be lacking dominating midfielders which has been its staple through the decades. If the chance to get a stop-gap emerges it should be exercised as Fred and Scott McTominay have no backup and neither are of the profile employed by clubs who play gegenpressing. Primary targets like Declan Rice, Aurelien Tchouameni or Reuben Neves might not be available but secondary ones like Amadou Haidara, Dennis Zakaria or Boubacar Kamara might be feasible if any departures come about like Martial, Lingard or Bailly. 

One of the surprising things to come out is that the non-selection of Donny van de Beek under Rangnick, with reports that suggest that the Dutchman can at best play in number 10 now occupied by Bruno Fernandes where Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard can also play, but struggles to cover the ground elsewhere in midfield. While the most visible change is in the full-back position where Rangnick has used Telles and Dalot instead of Shaw and Wan-Bissaka. Martial wants out which if materialized will free-up one position in the bloated squad. Eight is a high number of experienced players who are are on the fringes of the squad Henderson, Bailly, Jones, Mata, Lingard, van de Beek, Martial and Paul Pogba's(played <50% of games due to injury) contract due to expire in June. Rangnick's reply to a question whether he should persuade a player to stay at Manchester United was on-the-spot "Players have to want to play for a big club like Manchester United. If a player does not want to play Manchester United in the medium or long term, I don’t think it makes sense to convince him to change his mind."

Three wins and a draw has taken Wayne Rooney's Derby County within 3 points of second from bottom team in the table considering the massive 21-points deduction for financial breaches at the start of this season. If Derby avoid relegation to League One, Rooney will certainly be a bona fide legend as a manager. An intriguing fixture was in the FA Cup where Derby lost to another former ex-United player managed team Coventry City, Mark Robins. As expected Richard Arnold has been confirmed as new CEO from Ed Woodward thus bringing the curtains down to perhaps the most torrid period of United history since mid-70's.

United face their lucky charm Aston Villa in the third round of FA Cup though its not at Villa Park. The corresponding fixture in 1948 when United beat Villa 6-4 at Villa Park was described by Geoffrey Green as one of the best matches in the history of the Cup. Villa led 1-0 within a minute then United annhilated the hosts with five goals and in second half Villa hit back with three goals to setup a humdinger of a finale before Stan Pearson struck to soothe the nerves. "For dramatic content and depth of plot that Villa-United tie lives with the best... as a match of high drama, swaying one way then another and hightened by the storm of rain, it takes some beating." Busby's United went on to win their first trophy. Only two losses came in third round of 19-20 and in final of 56-57 when United were chasing the first double of last century of league and FA Cup. United though beat Villa en-route to winning the FA Cup in 62-63, 76-77 and 03-04 campaigns. During the treble winning season Ryan Giggs's solo goal at Villa Park waltzing his way through the Arsenal midfield and defense is certainly the greatest FA Cup goal. Rangnick would hope world's most famous and oldest cup competition provides the perfect opportunity for United to get their season back on track.

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