MANCHESTER, England – Ralf Rangnick’s Manchester United revolution is still in its infancy, but fans who flocked away from Old Trafford after watching the German reign begin with a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace will have made it convincing about what his team is supposed to look like.
It was by no means a “counter-pressure” masterclass overseen by the man credited for defining that style of play, but with only 48 hours to work with his players after his introduction Friday morning, there were at least the hallmarks of Rangnicks football.
For Rangnick, 63, the most important statistic from his first match as 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 attack. third of the field 12 times, an increase of five on every other game this season.
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After pointing out at his first press conference on Friday that United have conceded too many goals into this season (24 in 14 Premier League games ahead of Sunday), Rangnick can also rejoice that a first clean sheet was recorded at home since April.
And so, while there is work to be done, the new responsible man will take all the positives he can, after being parachuted into the job during the most hectic time of the season; this match was the second of six in a 13-day period for United.
The crucial moment took some time to reach, but Fred’s goal in the 77th minute – just the Brazilian midfielder’s sixth in 137 games for the club – secured a victory that moved United up to sixth place.
“I’m very pleased with the way the team performed, the way they played, especially the first half hour – it was unique, I thought,” Rangnick said. “The only thing missing in that period was one or two zero. We had control of the game, I am very happy with the result and clean sheet.
“I said at my first press conference that there are things we need to improve, 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 the one Michael Carrick chose against Arsenal on Thursday, but the style was noticeably different, at least for the first 30 minutes. Rangnick wrote in his program notes that 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 team was knocked short to Tyrick Mitchell. Cristiano Ronaldo stormed into the corner and a frantic Palace pass into midfield allowed Scott McTominay to thunder into a challenge and win the ball back.
It elicited a huge roar from the home fans as if they had been starved by such intensity. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, United seemed reluctant – or unable – to play on the front foot, but it is not an accusation that can be leveled against Rangnick.
With Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Fred and McTominay arranged in three banks of two as Palace tried to play out of defense, United pushed themselves high up on the pitch and swarmed around yellow jerseys when given the chance.
For a period in the first half, it seemed inevitable that they would score, and Patrick Vieira in the opponent would have been delighted to see Rangnick’s players run out of steam as the break approached. With only two training sessions under their new manager, that might have been expected.
“Patience was important, but we always tried to be on the front foot – that’s what I liked today,” Rangnick said. “We always tried to keep them away from goal. We wanted to play with two strikers and with two 10s to get more control in midfield.
“I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. Saturday was disgusting weather and it was almost impossible to train focused. I did not expect them to play at that level after such a short time.”
After asking his players to be proactive, so was Rangnick. Solskjær could be slow to make changes, especially in close matches, but with the score still at 0-0, the new man wasted no time in bringing Mason Greenwood to Sancho, shortly after the hour.
And the substitute made sure the move paid off as Greenwood delayed in the box before laying the ball from Fred to kick a 20-yard shot over goalkeeper Vicente Guaita and into the top corner. Rangnick clenched both fists for celebration on the sidelines before hitting the air and then remembered to tell his players to lift themselves in the final 13 minutes.
“I had to ask my assistant coach if it was Fred’s right foot,” joked Rangnick (Fernandes also made fun of on Twitter). “I thought he could only shoot with the left. I’m happy for him.”
It was only one game and United remain outside the top four – considered a minimum each season for the club – but there were positive signs of an upward trajectory. A new era is underway.
“It’s always easier to build on things once you’ve been successful,” Rangnick said. “We need to produce more clean sheets and get better at creating chances for our attack. Overall, I was very pleased with the way we played today.”