Rangnick shows signs of shaping longer-term Manchester United future

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Rangnick shows signs of shaping longer-term Manchester United future
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

Ralf Rangnick: should he stay in the Manchester United hot seat next season or should he go? This is the question the club will grapple with if the interim manager secures a top-four finish, claims (or just misses out on) FA Cup glory and shows well in the Champions League; basically, if he performs as an impressive mid-season Mr Fixit who deserves a chance to have a No 1’s contract drawn up.

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The German is open to the full-time job, so might United’s incoming CEO, Richard Arnold, be minded to keep him by mid-May? After the best part of two months and nine matches a picture is forming of Rangnick and his managerial smarts. Wednesday, at Brentford, was particularly instructive because, with United 2-0 up, the 63-year-old made Cristiano Ronaldo his fall guy and a 3-1 victory was the reward. It took the team to 35 points and maintained their status as back-runners hoping to overtake on the curve in the chase for a Champions League berth.

So, rewind to the moment in west London when Rangnick assesses United’s 2-0 lead, Mason Greenwood’s strike having been initiated by Ronaldo’s clever chest-down pass, and decides the 36-year-old should be sacrificed for a back three to shut the shop in the way he failed to do at Aston Villa, when United slipped from 2-0 up to a careless 2-2 draw.

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Ronaldo, as is his modus operandi, is not happy at being hooked on 71 minutes and, as a man on £490,000 a week who is a five-times Ballon d’Or winner with 801 career goals, demands a reason. “Why me?” he asks. Moments after Marcus Rashford – brought on for Greenwood (who does not demand an explanation) – scores the third, Rangnick, in the heat of battle when he should be focusing on the field, decides to explain. Later he tells the media what he told Ronaldo: that “it was for the good of the team”.

Rangnick shows signs of shaping longer-term Manchester United future
© Provided by The Guardian Ralf Rangnick takes off an unimpressed Cristiano Ronaldo at Brentford ‘for the good of the team’. Photograph: Dave Shopland/Rex/Shutterstock

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From here, zoom out to view the wider picture. The vignette at Brentford is a subplot, a two-man scene in the wider narrative of Rangnick, his style and what might become of him at the season end. For the moment, Rangnick is slated to move into a two-year, quasi-director of football role, as a “consultant”, to use United’s terminology.

The thinking was that hiring Rangnick would allow United, led by Arnold, time to pursue the glitzier Paris Saint-Germain manager, Mauricio Pochettino, who has been to a Champions League final with Tottenham. Or maybe Erik ten Hag, of the Dutch champions, Ajax. Or Brendan Rodgers, who took Liverpool close to the 2013-14 title, made Leicester Cup holders and whose team allowed two 90-plus-minute Spurs strikes to lose 3-2 the same evening United beat Brentford.

But how about the “godfather of pressing” as a candidate to be United’s fifth permanent manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired? The man whose handling of Ronaldo suggests a spine for the job, as does a penchant for dropping casual media-conference bombs, such as the claim Anthony Martial refused to travel to Villa (the player denies this), or that the £73m signing Jadon Sancho is struggling “psychologically” to deal with playing for the world’s biggest club™. Or that Paul Pogba may be motivated to perform solely to attract suitors as his contract winds down.

On the field, too, there are signs that Rangnick is patching up the mess he walked into. His league record stands at five victories, three draws and one defeat; United are alive in two cups – the Champions League last-16 clash with Atlético Madrid starts next month, and Middlesbrough are fourth-round Cup visitors next Friday; and, before that, the tilt at Champions League qualification continues at Old Trafford on Saturday against West Ham.

Moyes’s fourth-placed side are the first of 17 Premier League opponents United need to take enough points from to force Rangnick’s paymasters to consider ending the search beyond the club for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s full-time successor. If the Hammers are beaten, Rangnick’s side leapfrog them and go six points behind Thomas Tuchel’s flatlining Chelsea with a game in hand. It is not so simple, of course. Beyond having to win these matches – will the consistently inconsistent United ever be consistent? – there are Tottenham and Arsenal, too. They are ahead of United having played fewer games.

Rangnick shows signs of shaping longer-term Manchester United future
© Provided by The Guardian Can Mason Greenwood, in action here against Aston Villa, get on a sustained run of impressive form? Photograph: Isaac Parkin/PA

These ifs, buts and maybes make the situation enticing. If Manchester City appear a shoo-in to retain the title, at least two Champions League places are in up-for-grabs-now territory. United, under Rangnick, may be stirring when required, with footballers awakening who have underwhelmed. Greenwood’s sustained-performance graph is still to surge up – as a lethal wide-man can he be United’s Mo Salah? – and the lesser-gifted Rashford has been lukewarm, but at Brentford each scored, as did Bruno Fernandes (twice) at Villa.

Their form and that of other disappointments, who include Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Sancho and Pogba, will be vital, for where United’s campaign ends and whether next season’s Rangnick is to be United’s upstairs or still-downstairs man.

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