Why Man United struggled at Newcastle: Ralf Rangnick has plenty of work ahead

Manchester United’s 1-1 draw away at bottom-dwelling Newcastle after 16 days without a game was as bad as anything served up under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

If Ralf Rangnick had any doubts about the size of the task that lay ahead of him at Manchester United, he was made acutely aware of how tough the next few months are going to be as he watched his side struggle to earn a point against relegation-threatened Newcastle on Monday. 

There were countless examples that might have left Rangnick wondering whether this group of players is up to executing his style of football. Like Fred misplacing one of his 43 passes, the numerous times that Newcastle danced through his team’s back line or Bruno Fernandes losing possession 26 times.

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On the basis of the display at St James’ Park, the interim manager needs to go back to basics before he even considers a new style and formation if he is going to salvage their Premier League top-four hopes this season. 

Rangnick stood on the touchline, shaking his head and rubbing his forehead, and, with half an hour on the clock, he shrugged his shoulders to suggest he had no idea why they were performing the way that they were. There was an air of disbelief. 

The German had gone into this fixture feeling confident after getting the majority of his squad back to full fitness following the COVID-enforced shutdown. Now, three league games into his tenure, he’ll be more aware than ever of the job he has got on his hands. He hasn’t got long to sort these problems out either; Burnley at home awaits on Thursday night. 

So what’s the problem? Is the new 4-2-2-2 formation too complex for the players to get a hold of? Are players not being utilized to their full potential? 

Fernandes, for example, does not look like a natural fit out on the right side and the lack of quality in midfield leaves United very exposed in the center when the front four push forward. 

While the switch to a 4-1-3-2 formation in the second half against Newcastle saw a slight improvement, the fundamental problems persisted and reinforced the idea that it is not necessarily the system that is the biggest problem.

“It was not a problem of formation, it was a problem of energy and intensity,” Rangnick said after. “Also of speed, how we play in those one-on-one duels. This is something we have to get better at.”

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The issues the former RB Leipzig coach has with this Manchester United team are two-fold. First, there are too many unforced and technical errors and second, they are lacking intensity and aggression.  Former defender Gary Neville believes the latter is a behavioral and attitude problem.

“They are a bunch of whingebags, their arms were in the air. They were shocking in the first half. They got the last manager the sack and they will get a lot of managers the sack like that,” he said on Sky Sports at halftime.

‘Whingebags’ is probably a new term for Rangnick to get his head around. While he admits there are bigger problems, the body language and attitude of the players is something that needs to change. That is one reason why Jadon Sancho started the game on the bench. 

Fernandes was booked for dissent, Ronaldo was lucky not to be sent off for a challenge on Ryan Fraser — born out of frustration — and every member of the starting XI was culpable of throwing arms up in the air and complaining in the direction of a teammate.

United lacks control and lacks precision, but the players also seem to lack belief in themselves and in one another. It is no wonder Rangnick wanted to bring in Sascha Lense as a sport psychologist. There is no cohesion nor method to the attack, there are constant issues in defense — as evidenced by the lead-up to Allan Saint-Maximin’s opening goal — and problems in and out of possession. 

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These were all issues associated with Rangnick’s predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and while the new man has only had a few weeks to get his ideas across, and that term has been punctuated by a COVID-19 outbreak that shut the training ground, the display at Newcastle was as abject as anything under Solskjaer.

Rangnick knows what he wants but the players need to step up, like Edinson Cavani did on United’s equalizer.

It is hardly surprising that the interim manager “didn’t like the performance at all”. 

“In three days we have the next game. We can do better, but we have to do it. We shouldn’t look for excuses. We need to be better and get more physical,” he said. 

Never mind the talk of different systems and coordinated attacking formations, Rangnick needs to start with the basics before he can start to build something of his own.