A scruffy draw at Newcastle was not the beginning of the end of the Ralf Rangnick era and neither was a disjointed win over Burnley its glorious rebirth. Games against sides in the bottom quarter of the Premier League are not really how Manchester United should be judging themselves – not unless they’re losing them 4-1, in which case it really probably is time for a change.
Optimists, though, perhaps could see signs of progress on Thursday: in Scott McTominay’s energy and drive, in Edinson Cavani’s continued sharpness, in the way Jadon Sancho swooped in from the flank for the second goal and the way Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t wave his arms about quite so frustratedly.
Body language, slightly oddly, dominated the post-match discussions. There is evidence from sports psychologists that it does make a difference – but then, it’s a lot easier to look happy and motivated when you’re winning; the real test will come next time United are being outplayed by Newcastle or struggling to break down Norwich. Monday’s game against Wolves, whose last seven games have featured just four goals at either end, may offer a more significant insight.
Under Rangnick, United have taken 13 points from five Premier League games and lie sixth, five points off fourth with a game in hand. To that extent their season has been rekindled. But, other than Arsenal, whose away form against top sides is atrocious, they have not played a top-four challenger and, apart from a faltering West Ham, won’t do so until the beginning of March. At the moment, it feels as though United are in limbo, waiting for the real challenges ahead.
But then limbo does seem to be club policy at the moment. It felt telling that the Newcastle performance prompted such discontent – both from that body language and in subsequent grumbling; much of it must stem from the sense of uncertainty. Not for the first time, the United board has come up with a solution that leaves nobody clear what the plan is – and these are directors, we know, with a tendency to react to events. Lacking football expertise of their own, they drift where public opinion takes them; Rio Ferdinand banging his hand on a desk in the BT Sport studio can change the entire history of Manchester United.
Appointing Ole Gunnar Solskjær as an interim manager to detoxify the club after the dismissal of José Mourinho made sense. Giving him the job on a permanent basis three months later did not, however good initial results had been. Waiting till the end of the season would have given the club two months more evidence on which to base a decision and would have cost nothing; it’s not as though Solskjær was going to dash off and accept an offer from somebody else. United ended up winning only two of the 10 games that remained that season, a run that probably would have led to a different appointment and perhaps spared United the two wasted years that followed.
Solskjær as temporary manager made sense; he was a popular club legend and it gave the board time to come up with a strategy. Rangnick as interim may make sense, but only if he is allowed to use this second half of the season to get a feel for the club, to assess the squad and to work out how he can shape it.
But is that what his consultancy role means? Nobody seems to know. If it is Rangnick making decisions on recruitment, nominating a coach to pursue a vision he largely dictates, then this period of research could be extremely useful. But if that is the case, what is the role of the director of football, John Murtough, and the technical director, Darren Fletcher, both of whom were appointed in March?
Rangnick is not Solskjær. He is not a living embodiment of the club’s most glorious period, not somebody to pay obeisance to Sir Alex Ferguson and remind players of the best traditions of the club. He is a technocratic outsider with his own clear vision of how the game should be played.
Before arriving at United, he had coached only 88 first-team games in the previous decade, preferring to take on a supervisory role in the background – something at which he was hugely successful at RB Leipzig. He was open about disliking the pressure of frontline management at Schalke – and, big club though they are, the scrutiny there is nothing compared with that at United.
His football demands intense physical and mental effort. If players think he will be gone in six months, reduced to a distant figure making the occasional phone call to Richard Arnold, Ed Woodward’s nominated successor as CEO, he is probably quite annoying. Then again, if this the way the new United are going to be, finding out which players find the Rangnick method annoying is a useful process.
But there is also an issue of expectation. What is United’s aim for the rest of the season? If this is a fact-finding period before the grand reconstruction begins, then it’s unreasonable to place too much store by results; fourth place may be an aspiration but it cannot be a target. But equally it is understandable if, after eight years of drift, there is impatience among fans, who must look across Manchester and see in City, a club they had patronised for decades, a club that are better resourced, better run and better coached.
It could be that Rangnick is the beginning of the process that will narrow that gap. But nobody should be under any illusions of how much work needs to be done. Solskjær’s management was a symptom of the club’s poor decision-making and, because of his status, a mask for it; it was not the cause of the problems.
But the danger is that a lack of clarity stymies the revolution from the start, that, against better sides than Burnley, the frustration that was so evident at St James’ Park spills over into a more general indiscipline and that undermines the Rangnick project almost before it has begun.
The uncertainty of Solskjær’s caretaker period was useful; the Rangnick uncertainty – interim coach then ill-defined consultancy – risks being self-defeating.