With time running out to breathe new life into a top four challenge, Manchester United and Ralf Rangnick will hope they can use a long break to their advantage this time
Manchester United have been given a golden opportunity to refresh their season and keep their top four hopes alive, with a lengthy break between games.
Liverpool’s FA Cup exploits meant Ralf Rangnick’s side weren’t in action over the weekend: their trip to Anfield will have to wait, but they do now havegiving them more time to recover from the mental toil of their Champions League elimination. And, by the time United’s players return after the international break with a game at home to Leicester City, 18 days will have passed since they lost to Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford.
Rangnick’s men have been in this position before, though, and failed to make the most of the opportunity. That chance was squandered back in December, and United’s fans will hope their manager and players have learned from those mistakes.
It must be noted that the previous break wasn’t in identical circumstances. In that case, it was Covid rather than cup results and international responsibilities to blame, so naturally the preparations were a little different.
A game against Brentford, scheduled for December 14, was pushed back following an outbreak in the United squad. A meeting with Brighton & Hove Albion – originally pencilled in for four days after the trip to the Brentford Community Stadium – was also postponed.
This meant a 16-day gap for Rangnick’s men, between the December 11 trip to Norwich City and the December 27 meeting with Newcastle United at St James’ Park. The Magpies had come into that game off the back of three straight defeats, with 11 goals conceded, but held their Champions League-chasing opponents to a draw.
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On that occasion, Rangnick’s team looked a little flat, as if they break had sapped their momentum rather than giving them a chance to regain the energy they needed for the task at hand. The nature of some players’ absences may have also been a factor, but an inability to deliver in the north east was a worry.
“I didn’t like it at all,” Rangnick said after the Newcastle game, which the hosts led for more than an hour before Edinson Cavani’s equaliser. “We were trying to get better at controlling games, today we didn’t control the game – apart from very few moments – at all.
“Even in the second half, when we scored the equaliser and they had two or three injured players, we were not really controlling the game and taking the wrong decisions in the important moments and that’s what it’s all about.”
The following weeks didn’t show much improvement. Burnley were beaten at Old Trafford after the Newcastle game, but that result was followed by a defeat at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers before a 2-0 lead against Aston Villa was chucked away.
Rangnick was accused of “making up systems” after the loss to Wolves, with pundit Jamie Redknapp saying they were “devoid of confidence, of ideas, of how to play”. Results since them have remained unconvincing, with United yet to win more than two games in a row in 2022, and elimination from the FA Cup and Champions League leaves a lot more riding on the remaining nine league games.
This is where the interim manager faces a huge test. Rangnick might not be in the dugout next season, but that doesn’t mean he can’t show an ability to learn from the past and salvage what’s left of this one.
The task is simple for United. Nine league games, nine chances to make up the points they need to make up and chase down fourth-place Arsenal.
Some members of the squad will be away on international duty in the coming days, but for those remaining in Manchester there’s a chance to put the work in on the training ground. Here, the manager is just as important as the players, as he looks to impart his wisdom and put them in a place where they can deliver once the business end of the season gets underway.
United have nine league games remaining, including matches against three of the teams above them in the table. This time, a slow start after a long break simply isn’t an option.