Ralf Rangnick was thrust into the spotlight of German football the week before Christmas 1998 with an appearance on Das Aktuelle Sportstudio, effectively the Bundesliga’s Match of the Day.
The innovative tactical principles a then 40-year-old Rangnick calmly and concisely outlined to presenter Michael Steinbrecher and a live studio audience, with the aid of a magnetic board, were contemporarily mocked but have been mimicked in the decades since thanks to the precise description he delivered.
Rangnick displayed that scalpel analysis in the wake of his Premier League debut, summarising Manchester United’s tasks going forward with one sentence: “We must produce further clean sheets and get better at creating chances for our attack.”
After a week’s worth of training – rather than the paltry 45 minutes the Mancunian weather afforded Rangnick before Crystal Palace’s visit – United certainly carried out one of those objectives in a thoroughly underwhelming 1-0 win away to Norwich City on Saturday evening.
Naming an unchanged XI from his Premier League debut – who were all given a rest for the midweek draw at home to Young Boys – Rangnick’s side struggled to carve open the top flight’s most porous backline, falling foul of the improved rearguard Dean Smith has implemented at Carrow Road.
United broke the deadlock against Crystal Palace via a decidedly unlikely route to goal. As Rangnick cheekily admitted after the match: “I had to ask my assistant coach if that was Fred’s right foot. I thought he could only shoot with his left. I’m happy for him.”
United fired off 16 shots (half from outside the box) against Palace but struggled to teased out an opening that could be justifiably deemed anything more than a half-chance.
Alex Telles’ deflected free kick onto the crossbar was one of just two efforts United had in a stifling first 30 minutes against Norwich. With five yellow shirts strung across midfield United were forced into the stale, ponderous possession that littered the struggles Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side had when attacking outside of transitions.
Cristiano Ronaldo, as he did so often for Rangnick’s predecessor, proved the saviour on Saturday night once again, converting a 75th-minute penalty he lured Max Aarons into conceding. However, the 36-year-old may have broken the deadlock in the first half after a turnover was followed by some rare urgency in midfield.
Teemu Pukki’s slack touch on halfway presented United with a chance to break into space in the final ten minutes before the interval. Fred and Scott McTominay combined with the type of direct passing Rangnick called for on the eve of the match.
“It’s not so much the question of quality of passing…It’s more the question of where and when do they play the ball forward,” the interim manager told the club’s official website pre-game. “For me, it’s still too much of playing square and playing backwards,” Rangnick presciently added.
Ronaldo actually showed a rare reluctance to shoot on that particular occasion, feinting to pull the trigger twice before firing off an effort that Tim Krul comfortably caught. Nevertheless, the snap and bite that created that opening and littered the previous Premier League outing against Palace – especially in the first half-hour – was notably diminished at a sodden Carrow Road.
The control that Manchester United’s high pressing has afforded them was borne out by the share of passes that each side played in their respective attacking thirds. For Rangnick’s debut United boasted a suffocating 72% proportion – also known as field tilt. Against decidedly weaker opposition, the Red Devils could only record 59% in the same category – above their seasonal average but still a noticeable return to the norm.
Much like the first course of action taken by Thomas Tuchel – a prime Rangnick disciple – upon his arrival to Chelsea, the new coach has emphasised an improved defensive resolve at Old Trafford.
However, Norwich – Europe’s lowest scorers, the Premier League’s least-prolific shooters with the division’s worst conversion – forced David de Gea into five increasingly testing saves, with Ozan Kabak coming particularly close from a brace of set pieces in the final quarter of the match.
Nevertheless, United emerged with a second straight Premier League clean sheet for the first time since March and just their third consecutive win of the campaign.
A stuttering three points against the division’s basement dwellers didn’t entirely follow up on those debut positives, but at least Rangnick has a winning platform to continue to try and build from.