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Opinion

'United can go toe to toe with the best teams in Europe': Signs of life for Rangnick and United despite derby humbling

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Roar Rookie
6th March, 2022
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Yes, the score was 4-1 to Manchester City. Yes, the goals Manchester United conceded were the product of shoddy defending in the main.

Maddeningly, the last goal echoed United’s persistent failure to trap opposition forwards offside, with Alex Telles the latest doddering fullback to leave a foot planted where he shouldn’t. He and Aaron Wan-Bissaka had dismal evenings as City overloaded the flanks.

Fred and Scott McTominay were outnumbered in midfield, having to both press and protect, like a pair of eager schoolkids playing Whack-a-Mole at the local arcade.

And yet this Manchester United performance should provide all United fans with hope for the future. Because despite the poor defending, the period following City’s first goal was among United’s best football this season.

It wasn’t just the goal, though that was a beauty: a slick back-to-front move featuring a sumptuous pass by Paul Pogba, an unselfish decoy run around the corner by Bruno Fernandes and an inch-perfect curling finish by Jadon Sancho, formerly of City.

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Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United

(Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)

No, it was the dynamic pressing and the decisiveness of their passing that really stood out.

At one point the possession stood at 49 per cent to United, which for any team is considerable against City.

But they were tigerish in the tackle, purposeful on the flanks and direct without giving the ball away.

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This was not the insipid performance in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford, where City walked around for 90 minutes to a 2-0 score that should have been far greater.

This was instead similar in tone to the United performance a couple of years ago at the Etihad, a 2-1 victory in which Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial scored but was most notable for the red fury of the first 30 minutes, dynamic attacks repeatedly arrowing through a soft City midfield.

Now, like then, United could not retain their intensity. But unlike then, they were hamstrung by repeated defensive mishaps and an inability to pick the right option in attack.

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The moment of the match was arguably not Kevin De Bruyne’s smart finish to give City the lead again after some ping-pong in the United box.

It was a long ball by Victor Lindelof to Fernandes and excellent interplay with Pogba and Anthony Elanga, which led to another chance for Sancho.

Unlike earlier, he skied this one when trying to place it in the top corner. Levelling at 2-2, with City unsure of how to handle United’s directness in transition, would have made it a much more different second half.

(Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

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As it was, City’s class showed. United did not have a shot in the second period, with waves of blue possession the order of the afternoon.

Jack Grealish grew into the game with his piercing runs from deep in midfield, Bernardo Silva was superb and Riyad Mahrez eventually decided he’d had enough of play being funnelled almost exclusively down the City left, arrowing a half-volley into the corner via a deflection off Harry Maguire and sealing the win in stoppage time by blasting the ball through David De Gea.

There was no question of City’s superiority at the end.

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Despite the inevitable questions that will be asked of Ralf Rangnick, that 20-minute first-half spell was illuminating. It highlights the obvious work Rangnick has done with players like Fred and McTominay in when to press and win possession.

It shows that the plan of playing Pogba and Fernandes as a mobile, deep-lying front two as City do with Silva and Foden works when runners are attacking the space out wide.

And it crystallised the focus of this Rangnick era: targeted pressing and quick transitional attacks.

The fade and City’s second-half domination was inevitable because United are not fit enough to sustain that intensity. That is a fault to be addressed in the pre-season, not here.

But the signs were there today that United can go toe to toe with the best teams in Europe and not just play on the counter-attack, but offer a pressing threat of their own.

Whether this is enough to give them Champions League football next season is another question, but United fans should not be overly distraught after this result.

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