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Ralf Rangnick’s Initial Impact On Manchester United – The 4-2-2-2 Explained

Ralf Rangnick
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The Ralf Rangnick era at Manchester United began on a positive note with three points in the bag after a professional 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace at home. It was hardly a vintage performance – with United only mustering three shots on target and 0.93 xG – but crucially, the Red Devils looked much more solid defensively and conceded just eight shots against Palace (their second-lowest tally of the season). 

As Rangnick demanded before the game in his pre-match press conference, United asserted more control on the game through their work off the ball, which resulted in their first clean sheet at home in the Premier League since beating West Ham 1-0 over nine months ago.

Rangnick employed a 4-2-2-2 formation with two strikers – Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford – two central attacking midfielders with the freedom to roam and two ball-winners at the base of midfield to break up the play. The most discernible difference in Ragnick’s first game in charge compared to previous iterations of Manchester United was the intensity and work done off the ball, with United looking to press high and force turnovers in the opposition half.

The press was led by Marcus Rashford, and the narrowness of Manchester United’s attacking quartet helped the team hunt for the ball as a collective unit when possession was lost up the pitch. United won the ball back 12 times in the final third, nearly three times more than their Premier League average this season (4.1) and the most since the Alex Ferguson era ended in 2013.

From back to front, United were extremely compact out of possession, either when pressing high during an opposition goal-kick or when they sat back in a mid-block and defended space in a 4-4-2 shape.

As seen in the image above, the front two press the opposition centre-backs with Fernandes and Sancho pressing the full-backs, forcing Palace to recycle the ball to the other side or go long.

Even when Palace get past the first line of the press, United maintain pressure through the aggressive positioning of the full-backs and central defenders, with Dalot and Lindelof regularly sticking tight towards Zaha and Benteke to force a turnover.

United made 55 pressures per Fbref on Sunday, their highest number in a league game this season, and this constant pressure eventually prompted Palace to kick it long against their wishes.

While Rangnick’s plan without the ball worked to a tee, United didn’t enjoy the same success in possession with United players lacking ideas and familiarity in this new system to consistently create openings. 

United looked to play more direct against Crystal Palace, opting against building it out from the back and looking to target Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford up top with long balls. The full-backs also were an important part of the system, with Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles instructed to hold the width and stretch the pitch horizontally when in possession. 

Although there were some signs of nice interchange on the flanks between the full-backs and the two number 10’s – Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes – United failed to create any clear-cut openings, resorting to an extremely unlikely source to find a winner, a Fred shot from distance with his weaker foot.

Nevertheless, after only one training session and less than a week in charge, it was a promising start for Ralf Rangnick at the Theatre of Dreams. There are tougher tests to come in the winter months, but for the first time in a while, Manchester United can cling on to something to get them through these tricky periods, a clear tactical identity.


[Featured Image Credit: Manchester United]