Fred’s long-range winning goal against Crystal Palace capped off a hugely encouraging first outing for the Red Devils under their new interim boss
Ralf Rangnick went into his first Manchester United game with two aims: to win, and to oversee a controlled display from his new team.
On Sunday, he succeeded on both counts.
The 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace did not mark a blistering start to the new regime at Old Trafford, but this was a performance to bring hope and promise that Rangnick, with a bit more practice, could bring success back to United.
Much like the end result is unlikely to cause major headlines once the dust settles, Rangnick arrived in the dugout for the first time to little fanfare.
He walked out merged in with the rest of the coaching staff, and stadium announcer Alan Keegan made no special declaration that a new manager was in town.
But even those who may have had their heads in the sand for the last three weeks and were not aware that United had made a new coaching appointment would have realised from the off that this was a different side to the one that has struggled through the early months of the season.
He may have picked the same line-up that had beaten Arsenal on Thursday – which given he only had one training session with his new players was hardly a surprise – but the team’s style of play was already markedly different.
Right from kick-off United pressed with purpose. It is not that they had not pressed in the past, but this time there seemed to at least be a structure to it.
Gone were individuals aimlessly hounding opposition players hoping for the best as they did so many times under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Here they pressed as a pack, and it almost bore fruit after just three minutes, as Alex Telles saw a shot pushed out for a corner after the ball had been won back deep in Palace territory.
A switch of formation to Rangnick’s favoured 4-2-2-2 resulted in the team being more direct in their attacking play, too. With half-an-hour gone, Marcus Rashford had created three chances, Cristiano Ronaldo had attempted five shots and Jadon Sancho looked lively as he switched positions with Bruno Fernandes behind the front two.
In total, United managed 12 efforts on goal during the first half, with all that was missing was that final clinical pass or shot.
Rangnick, who spent the majority of the match in the technical area, seemed encouraged by what he was seeing, as he applauded each attempt on Vicente Guaita’s goal. Their pressing was clearly paying off, as across the duration of the match they won possession 12 times in Palace’s defensive third. Their previous best in a league match this season was seven times.
“It has been an average season so far, there is no avoiding that, but the club has players who are much better than the position we currently occupy, and it is my job to improve those players and that position,” Rangnick wrote in his first programme notes. “The first step in doing that is a shift in how the collective approaches games.
“If you want to win a football match, you have to control it, so the aim right now is to help the team control games more. That means being more proactive with and without the ball.”
That proactivity was clear, though the energy levels required to keep that up over the course of 90 minutes is something United’s players will need to reach going forward as they began to flag after just 20 minutes of the first half.
That said, they still recorded season highs for first-half passes into the final third (48), first-half touches in the opposition box (26) and first-half passes into the opposition box (26), among other metrics.
“I didn’t expect us to play on that level after only one-and-a-half training days with the players,” Rangnick told Sky Sports post-match. “The first half-hour was amazing. It was high-intensity, high-speed, high-tempo.
“The way we played against the ball, the whole game was in their (Palace’s half). I was positively surprised.”
Rangnick did his best to maintain his team’s intensity after the break, and could be seen wildly gesturing with his arms on the touchline as he looked for a solution to break down Patrick Vieira’s visitors.
The ex-RB Leipzig boss introduced Mason Greenwood and Anthony Elanga from the bench in a bid to spark his attack back into life, but in the end it was Fred who provided the moment of magic that United required.
The Brazil international’s curling shot from 20 yards out earned a celebratory punch of the air from his new manager as the home faithful were sent into raptures by the unlikeliest of goalscoring heroes.
Despite the win, this was not a perfect 90 minutes from United. There was, though, clear progress, and having only met his players for the first time 48 hours ago, that is as much as Rangnick could have asked for.
The control he demanded in his programme notes was certainly there as David de Gea was rarely tested on his way to securing United’s first clean sheet at Old Trafford since April, and with consecutive league wins for the first time since September, the fight for a top-four finish is on ahead of what looks to be a forgiving run of fixtures.
The Rangnick revolution has begun, and the signs are encouraging for all those related to Manchester United.