If Manchester United’s players were stung by Ralf Rangnick’s criticism of them last weekend then they couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to try and set the record straight.
For the umpteenth time since taking charge four months ago, Rangnick questioned the physicality of his United squad after their 1-1 draw with Leicester City.
It was a complaint first publicly aired just after Christmas when United were second best at St James’ Park and were fortunate to share the spoils with Newcastle United. It’s never been far from the surface since then and certainly explains how a squad that looks so talented has managed to perform so feebly this season.
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Rangnick has always trod the fine line between explaining that United lack physical robustness while being careful not to question the mentality of his players. His opposite number from him this weekend, Frank Lampard, ploughed straight through that line a few weeks ago when he questioned whether his Everton players have the “b ******* to play?”.
They’ve hardly responded in the affirmative since then, losing at West Ham and Burnley, although on both occasions Lampard has praised the effort and desire of his team.
Rangnick has never questioned those attributes in his squad, but speaking after that draw with Leicester last weekend he made the deficiencies they do have clear.
“We come back to DNA, speed, physicality, tempo, what do we need? This team does not lack technical players, it can do with more physicality,” he said.
“It has to be a bit in the DNA of a player, to be honest. It is difficult to change, shall I say a technically great player into a physical, aggressive player, and we have a lot of people who are technical players.
“On a day when we are fluid and in our rhythm, we have shown in the past we can outplay other teams. But today it was difficult. Leicester were aggressive and physical in many parts of the game. We had problems with them.
“It is as it is and it is difficult to change. I do not think it is to do with mindset, it is to do with the DNA of players.”
With Erik ten Hag now on the brink of becoming United’s next manager it’s clear that some in this squad are playing for their futures. A squad of technically gifted players is pointless if he doesn’t have the right balance and that is something Rangnick clearly feels is lacking when his team is being outfought so often this season.
There have been just nine wins in his 21 games in charge, a dreadful record, but if Rangnick’s views will matter to Ten Hag then there should be a nervousness in the squad. Some need to show they’re ready for the battle in the final eight games of the season, even if a top-four finish is looking more and more unlikely.
The lunchtime trip to Goodison Park certainly represents an opportunity to do just that. Everton are desperate for points and the atmosphere will be fervent on Merseyside, but no set of supporters in the Premier League turn as quickly or vociferously as Everton’s.
If United can start to win their individual battles and get on top in the game, the atmosphere can easily become a hindrance to Everton just as much as an advantage.
That mental and physical weakness was exposed on a wet and windy night at Turf Moor on Wednesday. Everton were on their way to taking a giant step towards safety at half-time but they threw it away after the break and looked vulnerable to Burnley’s direct approach and at set-pieces.
Sean Dyche even revealed he had told his players that Everton “don’t know how to win” at half-time on Wednesday, a damning exposure of their fragility right now.
Maybe that will elicit a response this weekend, but United should be ready to issue one of their own after Rangnick’s latest comments. This contest is unlikely to be much of a physical battle, but it’s one United should be desperate to win.
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