Ralf Rangnick made 11 changes to Manchester United’s starting line-up in midweek against Young Boys. It was a necessary research mission for the new boss, afforded the opportunity with the team already qualified in top spot for the knockout rounds.
United have a strong squad, and in certain areas Rangnick is spoiled for choice. He rotated Mason Greenwood and Anthony Elanga in up front in midweek for Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford, and still had Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani unavailable.
In central defence, United brought Eric Bailly in, and also have Raphael Varane set to return. In goal United have two very good goalkeepers battling for one spot.
Not all of United’s depth is equal
Rangnick will be comfortable with United’s forward and centre-back options. The midfield has sadly already been shown up to be an issue.
At the weekend against Crystal Palace, Fred and Scott McTominay played well. Rangnick was really pleased, telling his press conference after the game that the pair were ‘almost perfect’.
In midweek, the duo sat out ahead of a likely recall this weekend, and it cannot be said that the stand-ins stepped up and made a case for themselves.
Donny van de Beek gave the ball away for Young Boys’ goal and while some of his play was tidy enough, generally he underwhelmed. It was not easy for him playing alongside Juan Mata, while Nemanja Matic was deployed at centre-back.
United’s wildcard midfield option is Paul Pogba, who is not due to return until 2022 and has an expiring contract. His career at the club seems to be on its last legs.
The way Rangnick has built success stories in Germany and Austria, he is unlikely to recommend the club commit huge wages to a 28-year-old, who has a flaky injury record. This will be the fifth time in six seasons Pogba has failed to start 30+ Premier League games.
Matic may feel aggrieved to not yet have a chance to show the new boss what he can do in midfield yet, but at 33, he is quite clearly only a very temporary solution.
Van de Beek’s decision to play a short pass which led to Young Boys’ equaliser drew stinging criticism from the new boss, who told the club website: “We could have cleared the ball easily and whenever we played the ball into the second and third line, we were always dangerous. I told them that before the game, but they still played in that situation, a five-metre pass, and they were just waiting for that ball.”
What Rangnick has learned
Van de Beek is a good player who perhaps just lacks the smart decision making required to play the defensive midfield position. That’s not necessarily a big knock on him, it was always a big ask for him to play that role in midweek, anchoring the midfield with so many attacking players in the line-up.
All last summer, United fans were calling for a defensive midfielder to be signed, and the club failed to act. The other signings were great, but a glaring hole was left, and it was one of many reasons Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ended up losing his job.
Rangnick has learned already that United are weak in the defensive midfield area. He probably knew this already, like the rest of us, and now he has seen it with his own eyes first hand.
Fred and McTominay work well together as a pairing, generally, and they were aided by the tactical switch to the 4-2-2-2 on Saturday, left far less isolated than they were in Solskjaer’s system which often ended up as a 4-2-4 at times this season.
There is still plenty of scepticism among United fans over ‘McFred’, even if there’s a begrudging acceptance they may be the best option United currently have.
Rangnick would have loved Van de Beek to change his mind in midweek, but it didn’t happen.
The interim boss is unlikely to demand a lot of money to spend in January. When he does, it is likely he will put the funds towards strengthening the team’s midfield position. This has been the glaring issue at United for months, and this past week has highlighted the lack of depth United have in this area.
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