There was optimism building when it was announced that Manchester United were set to appoint Ralf Rangnick on an interim basis in November. The German had little recent coaching experience, yet it was hard not to be intrigued by his profile in the game.
Rangnick was the mastermind behind RB Leipzig’s meteoric rise through Germany’s football pyramid. That was hardly a fairy-tale success considering the club’s financial muscle, but the manner in which they rose to prominence was what captured the imagination of hopeful United supporters. Rangnick’s gegenpressing philosophy was the image in which the club was molded and built.
He seemed to be an expert tactician and that made him the perfect antidote to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. United had been tactically neglected under Solskjaer and the Norwegian never hid his preference for man-management and motivation. Rangnick was appointed to stabilize the club, to bring cohesion on the pitch and, most importantly of all, secure Champions League football.
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There have been 124 days since Solskjaer was sacked and there are nine games of the Premier League season remaining. United have been eliminated from each cup competition and their hopes of playing Champions League football next term are getting slimmer.
Arsenal are four points ahead of United and they have one game in hand to play, meaning they’re now heavy favorites to finish the top four. When United signed Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer, this scenario seemed unthinkable.
United were six points adrift of the top four when Solskjaer was sacked and not much has changed in that regard. They just have fewer games remaining — nine to be exact — to claw back their four-point deficit. It is hard to argue Rangnick has improved United when faced with that clear evidence, which some would suggest is the only thing that matters, and they would be right.
Rangnick’s interim tenure will be considered a failure if United fail to secure Champions League football, but it’s worth analyzing United’s underlying metrics away from points won, to paint a picture of whether appointing Rangnick was the smart decision.
Solskjaer won 17 points across 12 games for United this season and that’s an average of 1.41 points per game. Rangnick has won 29 points across the 15 Premier League fixtures in which he’s been in charge — an average of 1.93 PPG. Rangnick’s total is obviously better but it’s worth nothing United had the benefit of an easier schedule throughout the hectic festive period.
However, there is data that strengthens the case that Rangnick has actually improved United, despite the visual impression given. United have marginally improved under the German on almost all offensive metrics, but the significant improvements have been defensive.
United have averaged 47 interceptions per 90 minutes under Rangnick, which is an improvement on the 42 interceptions per 90 that they had previously made under Solskjaer. Rangnick has sought a higher intensity from United’s players following his arrival from him and this could explain that difference. United were incohesive under Solskjaer and their pressing of the ball was calamitous.
United have also averaged 20 per cent more defensive actions per 90 under Rangnick than they did with Solskjaer. United averaged 132 defensive actions per 90 under the previous manager whereas they now record an average of 160 per 90 in the Premier League.
They are not the only marginal gains Rangnick has achieved. United are now an overwhelmingly stronger side in 50-50 duels under Rangnick and the differences on those metrics are stark. United’s physicality has clearly improved under the interim boss.
Rangnick’s style of play hasn’t arrived in Manchester as was initially hoped in November, however, with the benefit of hindsight, it was naïve to ever think he would, in a short space of time, have such an effect on a dysfunctional side with to 37-year-old centre-forward. United have not been transformed into a brilliant pressing side but Rangnick has improved the squad on the pitch on relevant metrics towards that.
It will be a disaster if United fail to qualify for the Champions League in the coming months. The only positive from that situation would be Rangnick leaving the playing squad in a healthier position compared to the one Solskjaer left behind.
There is a brighter future coming.
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