MANCHESTER, England — Ralf Rangnick’s Manchester United revolution is still in its infancy, but the fans who streamed away from Old Trafford, having watched the German’s managerial reign begin with a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, will have done so convinced of what his team is supposed to look like.
It was in no way a “gegenpressing” masterclass overseen by the man credited with defining that style of play, but with only 48 hours to work with his players after his introduction on Friday morning, there were at least the hallmarks of Rangnick’s football.
For Rangnick, 63, the most important statistic from his first game as a manager in more than two-and-a-half years was that United scored and Crystal Palace did not, but it was telling that his team won the ball in the attacking third of the pitch 12 times, an increase of five on any other game this season.
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Having pointed out at his first news conference on Friday that United have conceded too many goals this season (24 in 14 Premier League games ahead of Sunday), Rangnick can also be pleased that a first home clean sheet since April was registered.
And so, while there is work to do, the new man in charge will take any positive he can after being parachuted into the job during the most hectic time of the season; this game was the second of six in a 13-day period for United.
The decisive moment took some time to arrive, but Fred’s 77th-minute goal — just the Brazilian midfielder’s sixth in 137 games for the club — secured a win that sees United move up to sixth.
“I’m very happy with the way the team performed, the way they played, especially the first half hour — that was exceptional, I thought,” said Rangnick. “The only thing missing in that period was one or two nil. We had control of the game, I am very happy with the result and the clean sheet.
“I said in my first press conference, there are things we need to improve on, to get clean sheets, to get control of the game. What they showed was more than I expected, to be honest.”
The United line-up was unchanged from that which Michael Carrick selected against Arsenal on Thursday, but the style, at least in the first 30 minutes, was noticeably different. Writing in his programme notes, Rangnick said he wanted to be “more proactive with and without the ball” and that approach was clear from the start.
With only three minutes on the clock, a goal kick for the away side was knocked short to Tyrick Mitchell. Cristiano Ronaldo charged into the corner and a panicked Palace pass into midfield allowed Scott McTominay to thunder into a challenge and win back the ball.
It prompted a huge roar from the home fans, as if they had been starved of such intensity. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United appeared reluctant — or unable — to play on the front foot, but that is not an accusation which can be levelled at Rangnick.
With Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Fred and McTominay arranged in three banks of two when Palace tried to play out of defence, United pressed high up the pitch and swarmed around yellow shirts whenever they got the chance.
For a period in the first half it seemed inevitable they would score, and Patrick Vieira in the opposition dugout would have been delighted to see Rangnick’s players run out of steam as half-time approached. With only two training sessions under their new manager, it was perhaps to be expected.
“Patience was important, but we always tried to be on the front foot — that’s what I liked today,” Rangnick said. “We were always trying to keep them away from goal. We wanted to play with two strikers and with two 10s, to get more control in the centre of midfield.
“I must admit I was positively surprised. On Saturday, it was disgusting weather and was almost impossible to train in a focused manner. I didn’t expect them to play at that level after such a short amount of time.”
Having asked his players to be proactive, Rangnick was, too. Solskjaer could be slow to make changes, particularly in tight games, but with the score still at 0-0, the new man wasted no time in bringing on Mason Greenwood for Sancho, shortly after the hour mark.
And the substitute ensured the move paid off when Greenwood delayed in the box before laying the ball off for Fred to flick a 20-yard shot across goalkeeper Vicente Guaita and into the top corner. Rangnick clenched both fists in celebration on the touchline before punching the air and then remembering to tell his players to lift themselves for the final 13 minutes.
“I had to ask my assistant coach if that was Fred’s right foot,” Rangnick joked (Fernandes also poked fun on Twitter). “I thought he could only shoot with his left. I’m happy for him.”
It was just one game and United remain outside the top four places — considered a minimum each season for the club — but there were positive signs of an upward trajectory. A new era is up and running.
“It’s always easier to build on things after you’re successful,” Rangnick said. “We must produce further clean sheets and get better at creating chances for our attack. Overall, I was very pleased with the way we played today.”