Football

Ralf Rangnick experiment a failure as Man Utd blown out of UCL

| PHOTO: Getty Images |
  • Manchester United will finish the season trophy-less once again as has been the routine in the last five years
  • Sacking Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and hiring Ralf Rangnick has been of little benefit to the Red Devils
  • They were knocked out of their last possible trophy, the Champions League on Tuesday night by Atletico Madrid

There was an air of expectancy around Old Trafford on Tuesday. The Stretford End was bouncing and raucous a good 30 minutes before kick-off, with the atmosphere gearing up for a first Champions League knockout match at the Theatre of Dreams since 2018.

But just as a Spanish side played the role of party poopers on that occasion, Atletico Madrid frustrated their way to a smash-and-grab 1-0 win that leaves United’s season all but over in mid-March.

At least when United lost to Sevilla in 2018, the Red Devils had more than their fair share of chances to snatch a result and progress – this time around, Ralf Rangnick’s men were left exasperated by Atletico’s all-out defence and dark arts.

With a top-four finish in the Premier League looking increasingly unlikely, some sort of run in the Champions League was about all United had left to play for. That’s now beyond them and it leaves the Rangnick ‘interim experiment’ clutching for positives.

For what it’s worth, there were certainly aspects of United’s performance here that were good.

Of course, that’s not necessarily anything new – much of their season has been blighted by an inability to extend regularly encouraging single-half displays into impressive showings over the full 90 minutes.

But the first 40 minutes here made up, arguably, United’s best display in terms of intensity and attitude under Rangnick.

Fred in midfield encapsulated that more than most, with the Brazil international picking up where he left off in the 3-2 win over Tottenham at the weekend. Similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo looked fired up – he even produced a well-timed sliding tackle on Antoine Griezmann, which seemed particularly alien.

But for all of their huffing and puffing, there was undoubtedly something missing in attack throughout. Other than an instinctive Anthony Elanga effort from close range that came back off Jan Oblak’s face, there was little to shout about in terms of goalmouth action for United.

Ronaldo’s insistence to drop deep so often left them without anyone to truly engage Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez in the Atletico box.

Even when Ronaldo was positioned to challenge the centre-backs or receive an incisive pass, Atletico was so deep that intricate distribution behind the defence was practically impossible, negating much of what makes the likes of Jadon Sancho and Elanga – especially the latter – a threat.

Ralf Rangnick

Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick. | PHOTO: Getty Images |

An indictment of United’s unthreatening control was the fact only Diogo Dalot (three) managed more than one shot in the first half, whereas Atletico looked capable of carving the hosts open whenever they could be bothered to get forward, which, granted, wasn’t very often.

United were let off when Marcos Llorente strayed just offside following an exquisite Koke pass, with Joao Felix’s subsequent goal disallowed. But it was 1-0 soon after as Atletico showed the kind of incisiveness the home side were lacking.

Llorente came inside and threaded a perfect pass on the outside of Raphael Varane for Joao Felix to dart on to. He held it up and backheeled into the path of the overlapping Griezmann, who picked out Renan Lodi for what was essentially a free header.

It was a bitter blow for United four minutes before the end of a relatively positive first half, but at that point, many fans would’ve already felt they had a mountain to climb.

United’s control increased after the break, but they managed just a solitary shot on target as their inability to find a way through Atletico’s organised defence rarely showed any sign of being overcome.

Bruno Fernandes’ withdrawal summed up United’s creative failure on the night, and Paul Pogba was no more effective in his stead.

Their only legitimate clear-cut opportunity in the second half was a Varane header that forced a fine save from Oblak, and therein lied United’s issue: it was route one or bust, their creators failing miserably to offer any kind of inspiration.

Generally, over the past decade, this result wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. In fact, for much of the post-Alex Ferguson era, many would have considered Atletico favourites for such a tie.

But this is no exceptional Atletico side. They themselves are battling to even finish in the top four in Spain, and they have already conceded more goals this season than in any previous full campaign under Diego Simeone despite there being two months left of 2021-22.

Yet they have left Old Trafford with the 1-0 win they needed, United’s season now looking completely unfulfilled.

Of course, we’ll only be able to understand the full extent of Rangnick’s impact on United once he’s had time to influence matters off the pitch.

But with his control, control, control set-up unable to prevent their season from essentially being already over, it’s difficult to look at Rangnick’s coaching stint at Old Trafford as anything other than an unmitigated failure.

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