Ralf Rangnick – Manchester United – Tactical Analysis

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Since the start of Ralf Rangnick’s temporary tenure at Manchester United, rumours have persisted about who the next permanent boss to hold down a legitimate tenure may be. Erik Ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino have been heavily linked, only continuing to take attention away from Manchester United’s burning castle…and their desire to finish inside this season’s top four. As the season nears Easter, the likelihood of Rangnick achieving that feat seems all the more unlikely, with Arsenal suddenly looking like the team to beat.

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But nevertheless, Rangnick’s Manchester United remain an incredibly intriguing case study. Not only has it been crystal clear from the very start that Rangnick’s time in charge will be short-lived, there has also been an indisputable inclination to depart from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics and ideologies, without much in the way of actual application on the pitch. As rumours continue to circulate, we take a deep scuba dive into Rangnick’s tactics and ideologies at Manchester United, discuss whether or not any of it is paying off to the extent the United board would have hoped, and outline the major issues United’s next manager will need to solve.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-2-3-1

Ralf Rangnick initially disassembled Ole’s 4-2-3-1 formation, in favour of a Red Bull inspired 4-2-2-2. The only problem? Manchester United clearly did not have much in the way of wings in the formation, and the verticality made Rangnick’s team incredibly easy to defend against. In some ways, it allowed the likes of Fred and Scott McTominay to explode into form, proving themselves as sound ball winners capable of holding a central midfield unit all on their own. In other ways, it exposed Fred and McTominay’s lack of ability to adequately defend transitions, a problem magnified by Harry Maguire’s incessant desire to step out of line and Luke Shaw’s poor positioning down the left. With the Red Devils only scoring 6 goals from 5 matches in the 4-2-2-2, Rangnick immediately switched to a 4-2-3-1, that has reinvigorated Manchester United’s expensive summer signing – Jadon Sancho.

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Other than the legendary David De Gea, Jadon Sancho has arguably been the key man under Rangnick, as Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo continue to battle for the same spaces, and continue to perform better when the other is missing. The British wing wizard has scored 2 goals with 3 assists in his last 6 Premier League matches, finally showing the promise that he brought with him when he arrived from Borussia Dortmund for that hefty €85 million fee. On the right wing, Rangnick’s had less consistency, but has handed an opportunity to Anthony Elanga, who has performed promisingly in his first few matches as a mobile, direct, pacey winger. Marcus Rashford continues to be the more experienced option down the right, despite his success down the left during Ole’s tenure in charge. Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo are the other undeniable starters in the attacking line, with both wanting to be the central figure at the club. Ronaldo’s had a decent start to life back at United, and his 12 goals in 24 matches have been integral to their ability to claim crucial victories. But there’s no denying that United achieved better form in the past few seasons without the presence of the Portuguese legend, and that has perhaps been a contributing factor to Fernandes’ drop in form this season. Bruno’s gone from 0.87 goals + assists per 90 in 2020-21, to just 0.58 in 2021-22, for a total of 9 goals and 6 assists in 27 matches. A significant portion of that ostensibly impressive tally came at the start of the season when he and Paul Pogba were firing on all cylinders, before Ronaldo arrived. Rangnick’s initial desire to play Bruno as an inverted winger in a 4-2-2-2 formation didn’t help, restricting him to creating and pressing from out wide, rather than pulling the strings through the middle. Now that Bruno Fernandes has been restored to the number ten position, we expect an upturn in form to follow.

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In behind the front quartet, Scott McTominay and Fred have continued to hold down a place and perform well, despite the relentless calls from fans for the club to sign a new central midfielder. Our stance on this has always been the same. While, we’d love for United to get their act together and sign a Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips or Wilfred Ndidi, Fred and McTominay have never been the problem for United, and the two men have performed admirably and consistently under Rangnick’s robust style of play. While Paul Pogba offers a massive edge in possession and could hit a target on the moon, United always look best with the two defensively solid midfielders in their lineup. The same could be said of 23-year-old defender Diogo Dalot, who has excelled under the influence of Rangnick to steal a place away from the out of form Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

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Alongside Dalot, Alex Telles has also been given time to shine this season at left-back, with United fans having very mixed reviews about his standard of play. Luke Shaw remains the irrefutable best option, but has been substandard at best this season, a far departure from his incredible form of 2020-21. With Harry Maguire already struggling to make adequate decisions with the amount of soccer balls he’s taken to the head over his career, the inconsistency at left-back has hurt United and their captain all the more. We’ll be examining the Red Devils’ future centre-back options in an article in due time, but it must be said that Harry Maguire also can’t be a made a scapegoat for United’s woes, no matter how hard fans may try. Alongside Maguire, we’ve always been a fan of Victor Lindelof, who adds an expressive edge to the Red Devils in possession and increases their Expected Threat dramatically. With an undeniable ability to both carry and pass the ball out from the back, it’s a mystery why the Swede doesn’t start every game. Raphael Varane is another experienced option, and one that has claimed several European trophies during his prosperous career. However, the inconsistencies in form and apt leadership at the back have allowed David De Gea to go on and have just about the best season of his career. Just as Dean Henderson was beginning to emerge as a genuine goalkeeping candidate for the Red Devils, De Gea’s taken his game to another level, with the best Post-Shot Expected Goal +/- in the division (+10.6). In other words, he’s saved a significant amount of shots more, and conceded a significantly lower value of goals than he would have been expected to. He’s even saved three(!), yes, three(!) penalty kicks this season, after not saving a single one since 2016 and losing United the Europa League final last season on spot kicks. Redemption indeed.

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There’s a real argument that David De Gea has been United’s Player of the Season so far, but that is a genuine worry for Ralf Rangnick, and one that needs to be addressed before the end of 2021-22, especially if the Red Devils are to finish in the top four.

So those are the players inside Rangnick’s 4-2-3-1 formation. But now let’s dissect how exactly Rangnick’s team set up both in and out of possession, and why they’ve struggled to truly break back into the top four.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

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For all of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s failures at United, the Norwegian had his team playing with a succinct style of football in the attacking sense of the game. The Red Devils had some of their best performances under a quick counter attacking regime, bolstered by rampant carriers like Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw, and the extraordinary creativity in the final third from the likes of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo changed all of that, and for a while, United suffered under a newfound uncertainty in identity. Ralf Rangnick’s quest has been to restore, renew or instate a new identity at the club, and that hasn’t quite happened from an attacking perspective.

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Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho have made themselves a bundle of energy in the wide areas, and the change in shape back to 4-2-3-1 has been a welcomed one. This, more than anything, has perhaps allowed United to develop some form of consistency without needing to rely solely on the skill of Bruno Fernandes or the finishing power of Cristiano Ronaldo.

As the wide men drive the ball inside, the fullbacks can also put pedal to the metal and gallop on the overlap. Dalot’s ability to time his runs forward has been a positive chip on Rangnick’s shoulders, with 5.7 progressive passes, 1.32 passes into the penalty area, and 0.41 crosses per 90 so far this season. To give context, that’s more than any other United fullback, and the vast majority of Red Devil attackers. Despite Dalot’s improved quality, United have continued to attack down the left with the likes of Shaw and Sancho, where Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo also love to roam. Victor Lindelof’s quality in hitting long passes over the top can then allow runners like Ronaldo or Bruno to run in behind in right half-spaces, or can be hit diagonally across for someone like Sancho as he holds the width of the field. Scott McTominay’s also improved his long-passing range this season, and will frequently look for these types of switches to the left himself.

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While the long-passing specialties of some players has been a positive, their risk-taking behaviour in this regard has also been a negative. Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes dazzle on the ball and produce magic at their toe-tips, but can sometimes be too quick to release the ball forward in the quest to pull off the extravagant. United have never truly found a balance between the boring and stale passes between their centre-backs that do much of nothing, and the overly adventurous ones that players further up the pitch tend to overhit. Not a single United player has received more than 9 progressive passes per 90 (Ronaldo highest at 8.03), elucidating that failed balance between longer, progressive passes, and shorter ones that don’t tend to adequately break lines or propel the Red Devils forward. To give context from our Analysis of Europe’s best ‘Progressive Pass Receivers’, a team like Liverpool who ooze class with their mix of patient possession and progressive directness have five attackers above 8.5 – Firmino, Salah, Mane, Diaz and Jota.

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With that kind of individuality and poor decision making in mind, it’s no wonder why United’s players often appear to be on different wavelengths – such as their horrific performance in a 1-1 draw at Newcastle. They have a countless number of players capable of producing magic. Ronaldo, as he showed against Spurs, still has devilish shooting boots. Jadon Sancho can dance around anyone. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba can both pick passes out from anywhere. Even someone mighty like Fred can randomly pop up with the ‘wait…what did he just do??’ kind of sorcery. But too much of that isn’t necessarily a good thing, and it’s one of the main reasons why United have failed to find a true sense of attacking identity since Rangnick took over. Every single one of United’s players are trying to be the saviour, when they achieved so much more with only one or two heroic figures under Solskjaer.

DEFENDING PRINCIPLES

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Much of Rangnick’s legacy as a sporting director centers around the tireless work his teams do off the ball, predominantly in the defensive side of the game. While the clean sheets and overall defensive intensity have increased, United’s defensive problems persist. In some ways, they’ve even been amplified, such as Maguire’s constant abandonment of his defensive line in pursuit of some sort of door to heaven only he can see.

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Part of that might be the inconsistency in defensive structure, with Rangnick remaining fairly adaptive to both the opposition and the needs of his team. The Red Devils have rotated between a 4-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 out of possession throughout the past few months, which sees further variations lower down on the pitch, such as 4-4-1-1. In the middle third, where United spend the majority of time defending, Rangnick’s team shape up into a 4-1-4-1, which positions one central midfielder (usually Fred) in front of the other.

If that holding midfielder is asked to track the opposition’s number six, it can even shape into more of a 4-5-1, as the defensive-mid steps up alongside the others. As the ball is progressed further down the field, all three midfielders may race back to defend, with a more stable double pivot in-tact and ready to handle passes into the penalty area.

When pressing higher up the pitch, Rangnick’s team float in between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-2-2-2/4-4-2. The defensive midfielders remain ready to enact what we call ‘Plan Presumptuous’, stepping out to win tackles and interceptions, particularly against players ahead of them that are about to receive with their back to goal. This is a clear pressing trigger for Rangnick’s team, and one that has given a player like McTominay a greater defensive edge in the final third. The near-sided fullback may also engage high up the pitch if the ball is progressed into a wide area, as the centre-backs hold a relatively high but initially disengaged position with the far-sided fullback. This high line can cause United some issues in transition and beyond, with none of their current back-four really possessing outstanding pace (Shaw and Wan-Bissaka excluded). David De Gea’s unwillingness to come off his line and enact Plan Presumptuous outside his penalty area only compounds matters. The 31-year-old’s been brilliant in stopping shots and putting his body in the way, but he is far from a ‘Sweeper Keeper‘. He will usually only engage off his line when the ball comes close to his box, but only if the defense line is significantly further away from the situation.

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To Rangnick’s credit, he’s recognized all of these competing factors and occasionally implemented the old pressing tactic we’ve noted several times this season with the likes of Brighton, Cruz Azul and Union Berlin. That is – the defensive line will hold a reserved position, with greater distance away from the first and second lines (for example the second bank of ‘4’ and the ‘2’ in a 4-4-2). This invites passes to be played in between the second and third line, but not necessarily over top of United’s high defensive line, where they lack the speed and awareness to cope. In some ways, this has helped United maintain the kind of control they want in both phases of the game. But it’s also been a contributing factor to the oh so prevalent Maguire dilemma, where he persistently wants to step out of his line and take matters into his own hands. We poked fun at Maguire in Why Manchester United should play 3-4-1-2, saying if he joined the line at a Fast Food restaurant, he would simply never reach the counter. But in all seriousness, it’s a shambolic issue for United to contend with, especially when they don’t have the other moving parts in place (such as a sweeper keeper or mobile defensive midfielder) to cover the gap. Smart players like Harry Kane and Antoine Griezmann can unravel this concern all the more through intelligent movement in deep, making Harry Maguire look like the dog owner who’s just desperately trying to cling on and contain his rambunctious dog, despite it already being on a leash.

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Six clean sheets in twenty matches is not the worst return in the world, but it is when you consider the standard of Manchester United (as we all collectively groan). The Red Devils have a multitude of problems to sort out before the end of the season, but their defensive woes top the list. We still suggest they switch to a 3-4-1-2 to bring greater defensive stability and consistency, even if it puts Jadon Sancho into an awkward position.

CONCLUSION

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Ralf Rangnick’s temporary tenure at Manchester United has been a roller coaster of a ride, with no end in sight for their persistent problems. Rumours continue to roam the footballing landscape, with Erik Ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino linked with the job. But regardless of who is to be United’s next manager, a multitude of problems need sorting out before the end of the season, and the players they currently have at their disposal need to pull their act together and pull it off. Rangnick’s achieved some level of consistency in a 4-2-3-1 formation that has brought positive moments from all his players in various moments, but they continue to ship goals for fun. Through those defensive failures, they’ve struggled to find a clear attacking identity, failing to adequately walk the line between patience and progressiveness. Ralf Rangnick hasn’t done the worst job in the world at Manchester United, but the inevitability of his end-of-season departure makes watching United and their tactics all the more unpalatable. Our offer to fix United’s defensive woes with the 3-4-1-2 formation remains on the table, and Rangnick can pick up the phone and answer our call any time.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Ralf Rangnick’s follies as Manchester United manager, and what needs to change moving forward. Be sure to check out more of our Premier League analyses, our Manager & Team series, and don’t forget to follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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