Manchester United were in dire straits the last time they were gearing up to face the team sitting top of the Premier League, and as they prepare to meet table-toppers Manchester City on Sunday, things aren’t looking much better now.
Rewind to last November.
Key figures in the Old Trafford boardroom had given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as long as possible until he had to pay the price for the club’s title aspirations being torn to shreds in the opening few months of the campaign.
Alarming defeats to Liverpool and City had put Solskjaer on very thin ice.
There were minor shoots of recovery against Tottenham and Atalanta, but a heavy reverse at Watford meant his position became untenable and United pressed forward into a new era.
Fast forward three months and they are in serious danger of failing to secure their revised target.
Arsenal are now in pole position to clinch a place in the top four, while Tottenham and West Ham represent additional threats. Yet the fight goes on.
There was a time when United could count on Cristiano Ronaldo to pull a rabbit out of a hat whenever they needed him. Things have changed a little since then.
Regardless of your position on his current form – and that is one issue for United – that ‘plan’ was never going to be sustainable. Others would need to step up to the plate.
An injury to Edinson Cavani has made that a difficult proposition for Ralf Rangnick.
After opting for his trademark 4-2-2-2 formation at the start of his tenure, the German appears to have settled on 4-3-3 and Ronaldo has had to be at the hub of that.
No matter how much he has achieved or still brings to the table, though, United simply cannot rely on Ronaldo and his current lack of goals. One in 10 since the turn of the year is not Ronaldo territory.
Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga have shown promising glimpses into the future. However, this is about the here and now, and should United need a steer, they can look to a tactical switch made by Michael Carrick during his mini spell in the dugout for inspiration.
No sooner than the dust had settled on Solskjaer’s departure, the former assistant took United to Spain and safely negotiated Champions League progression with a 2-0 victory over Villarreal.
A further win over Arsenal came as Ronaldo netted three times in those two games. Between those two triumphs came another acid test for Carrick and, while United ‘only’ picked up a draw at Stamford Bridge, it was at table-topping Chelsea where he put together the blueprint that could ease current Ronaldo concerns.
Without the lesser-spotted Cavani, five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo was left on the bench.
It was a decision that raised eyebrows, certainly out of camp, but that switch was completely justified as Sancho and Marcus Rashford operated in tandem to devastating effect.
Had it not been for a clumsy challenge from Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the visitors would have certainly taken three points.
The partnership has not been deployed since and Ronaldo is back, quite literally, front and centre.
Where will United finish this season? Have your say in the comments section below.
Rangnick will not change his plan A as such by taking a look at the Chelsea game, but should he need an alternative for what is a gruelling stretch of fixtures this March – starting with Manchester City on Sunday afternoon – following the blueprint carved out by Carrick might be a good place to start.
Sancho and Rashford together is not tried and tested, nor is it a long-term solution in central areas. It does, though, warrant another trial. Surely?
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.