MANCHESTER, England — On the pitch Saturday, Cristiano Ronaldo kept alive Manchester United’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League but off it, the 3-2 win over Norwich City was set against a backdrop of more supporter unrest.
The day ended with United three points closer to the top four thanks to Ronaldo’s hat trick — his 19th, 20th and 21st goals of the season — and defeats for both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. But while Antonio Conte and Mikel Arteta were busy shooting themselves in the foot, United fans were protesting outside the entrance to the directors’ box at Old Trafford, chanting “We want Glazers out” and “Sack the board.” The anti-Glazer songs carried on all afternoon: “Stand up if you hate Glazers” and other versions with more expletives.
“We are working hard to create the conditions for renewed success on the pitch, while strengthening our engagement with fans,” a United spokesperson said in a statement on the protests. “We respect the right of fans to voice their opinions peacefully and we will continue to listen to them, with the aim of working together to get the club back to where we all want it to be: competing for trophies.”
The fans who chose to stay outside for the first 17 minutes — one minute for each year of Glazer ownership — missed Ronaldo’s first goal after seven minutes but saw his stunning free kick crash in off the post midway through the second half to ensure Ralf Rangnick’s side just about took advantage of their rivals’ slip-ups. It’s not so much a race to finish in the top four but a slow crawl.
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“We should not have to rely on Ronaldo,” Rangnick said afterwards. “Defensively I was not happy at all. The results elsewhere were good but it doesn’t make sense to look at other results. We need to raise our game.
“It was highly important we won but the way we played was not good enough. It is a question of intensity and physicality. Like against Tottenham, Ronaldo was very crucial. They weren’t easy goals, it was just outstanding.”
United’s next two games are trips to Liverpool and Arsenal.
“If we want to get points out of those games we have to raise our level and play our best,” Rangnick added.
Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, this summer promises a fresh start of sorts with a new manager — likely to be Erik ten Hag — arriving and more money pumped into the squad, but for the majority of supporters, there can be no new era until the Glazers leave.
In the nine years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have all tried and failed to re-establish the club as a significant force in the Premier League and Champions League. The fear is that Ten Hag will run into the same old problems, and in a year or two, Joel Glazer will be looking for another new coach. Mourinho, in particular, arrived with a much more impressive CV than Ten Hag and still couldn’t make it work.
The idea behind appointing the Ajax boss over, say, Mauricio Pochettino, is that he is seen as having the talent to become one of the best in the world, but that potential is unlikely to be realised if he has his wings clipped by a club that doesn’t operate in the right way behind the scenes. He will have enough problems to deal with on the pitch.
Norwich’s two goals, scored by Kieran Dowell and Teemu Pukki, were so soft they only served to fuel the rage already simmering inside Old Trafford. After Pukki’s goal made it 2-2, some supporters began to sing, “You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”
The decision to substitute Paul Pogba was initially met with loud cheers and then boos as the Frenchman began to walk off. As he took his seat on the bench, fans began chanting “F— off Pogba,” and you can understand the frustration at a player who has said repeatedly he wants to leave and is six weeks away from walking away on a free transfer. At full-time, he managed to make things worse by cupping his ear towards the Stretford End.
“I didn’t hear it myself but I was informed after the game,” Rangnick said. “I can fully understand the fans are frustrated, so are we, but I don’t think they should take on individual players. I don’t think that is right or correct.”
The already-gaping hole in United’s midfield was demonstrated by Rangnick’s decision to start with Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Jesse Lingard. Pogba and Lingard are out of contract in the summer and Nemanja Matic, who came on in the second half, announced Friday he will also leave at the end of the campaign.
Ten Hag needs at least one midfielder in the summer, but he probably also feels the same about centre-back, full-back and centre-forward. It won’t be an easy rebuild and it remains a long road back to the top. Meanwhile, most fans believe the journey can’t even begin until the owners are gone.