Manchester United’s most pressing issue is a pressing issue

Manchester United’s most pressing issue is a pressing issue
Ralf Rangnick’s first five league matches in charge at Old Trafford paint a picture of a team still finding its way under its new manager

There were more than a few concerning post-match comments in the aftermath of Manchester United’s first defeat of the Ralf Rangnick era, not least from Rangnick himself. The interim successor to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer refused to promise that he would still salvage this season and deliver a top four finish because, well, how could he?

“I cannot make any guarantees,” Rangnick said. “Look at today’s performance: if I say we are 10 per cent convinced we will finish in the top four, I don’t know if people will believe that. It is about taking the next steps and getting better. I knew this could be hard. I knew it would be difficult. That’s the reason why they brought me.”

One of his players was no less forthright. Luke Shaw is a commendably honest and candid speaker, and his suggestion that the United players were not especially united was striking. “I didn’t feel when I was on the pitch that we were all there together. I think we felt like we were struggling and it was tough.”

But just as alarming from both of those admissions was another from Rangnick, though, who said that United had failed to do the one thing we were told to expect from a Rangnick team. “We didn’t press at all,” he conceded. “We tried but we were not able to get into those pressing situations.”

This much was evident from just watching the first half hour against Wolves, which was about as far removed as possible from the first half hour against Crystal Palace a month earlier, for Rangnick’s first game in charge.

That day, United were hassling and harrying their opponents right from the whistle, getting themselves first to the ball time and again. A delighted Rangnick declared himself “positively surprised” by how quickly they had adapted to his gegenpressing style. Yet against Wolves, it was as if that had all been forgotten.

United’s pressing levels have fluctuated over the course of Rangnick’s first five league matches, painting a picture of a team still finding its way under its new manager.

Measuring the number of passes that a team allows their opponents to make before attempting to win the ball back – or passes per defensive action (PPDA) – is a rough way of estimating the intensity of that team’s pressing. The lower the number, the quicker they attempt to win the ball back, and therefore the more intense their press is.

In Rangnick’s first game, United allowed Palace to make seven passes before trying to win the ball back – a low figure, in line with the likes of Leeds and Liverpool. United’s press was largely operating at the same level in the narrow win at Norwich and last week’s disappointing draw against Newcastle. Winning the ball back was not the problem at St James’ Park, it was retaining it.

In all three of those games, United had a more intense press than they had averaged under Solskjaer earlier in the season. But in the last two outings, that has changed.

Rangnick substitutes Jadon Sancho during United’s loss to Wolves

Against Wolves, United allowed 14 passes before attempting to win the ball back, in line with the Premier League’s least intense presses at Everton, Newcastle and at Wolves themselves. United were even more passive against Burnley, allowing around 20 passes to be made before attempting to win the ball back. This is not what we were told to expect upon Rangnick’s appointment.

Other pressing metrics are more sympathetic. According to FBref, the number of attempted pressures against Wolves was largely in line with previous games under Rangnick but – as Rangnick himself explained – the problem was not a lack of willing, it was a lack of success. Less than a quarter of United’s pressures against Wolves resulted in them winning the ball back, one of the lowest success rates of the season.

Why this drop-off, then? There are plenty of factors to bear in mind when analysing what is still a terribly small sample of data. The Burnley figures, in particular, will be affected by the fact that United went 3-0 ahead inside the first 35 minutes. The game was wrapped up early. In that context, it is perhaps unsurprising that United’s play out of possession lacked urgency.

It is still striking, though, that the key tenet of Rangnick’s tactical game plan is not yet shining through on the pitch, and certainly not with any consistency.

United’s interim manager has several valid reasons he can point to in mitigation. This was still only his sixth game in charge and only the fifth with a first-choice starting line-up. United have not only been contending with the congested Christmas schedule, which reduces training time to the bare minimum, but also a Covid-19 outbreak which shut down first team operations at Carrington for a significant stretch of time.

He has had even less of an opportunity to work with his players on his tactical vision than if he was just a regular interim manager, arriving at a regular point in the fixture schedule, in regular times without a pandemic happening.

There is also the point that this is just what a rebuild looks like. Any expectations of an immediate turnaround in fortunes were always unrealistic. Though Solskjaer’s departure was absolutely necessary, he was far from the only problem at a club that, despite being one of the richest and best-resourced in the world, has not put together a serious, sustained title challenge for the best part of eight years.

These things take time. With the best part of two weeks until his next Premier League engagement, Rangnick finally has an opportunity to drill the fundamentals of his philosophy into his players on the training ground and make them look like a Rangnick team. What the past week has proven, though, is that United’s adaptation to his methods has not been immediate as was first hoped.