United’s clash against Newcastle is the biggest of Ralf Rangnick’s caretaker stint so far. The last couple of weeks have been far from plain sailing, and he will be keen to get back on track.
After replacing Solskjaer and penning a six-month deal until the end of the season, Rangnick quickly set about drilling his players for his high-pressing style of play and enjoyed two Premier League victories, against Palace and Norwich.
However, since then, he has been handed headache after headache. United, like many of their top-flight rivals, endured Covid-19 outbreak. Their Carrington training complex was shut, and two league fixtures ultimately postponed.
Only over the past week or so has normal business resumed at the club. They were last in action on December 11, at Carrow Road, but have returned to training. Rangnick even let his squad enjoy Christmas Day, due to their additional day off.
Now, though, it is back to business. They will come up against a Newcastle side short on confidence, but not on match fitness. Eddie Howe’s side have been battered recently by Manchester City, Liverpool and Leicester, and need to stop the rot.
Rangnick, on the other hand, will be desperate for another victory – what would be a third consecutive top-flight triumph. And he has a number of big decisions to make with his team selection, with players back in contention, and others for the chop.
Raphael Varane and Edinson Cavani are both in the matchday squad. A welcome development which also presents the interim manager with his first true test. He may decide that both superstars are ready to be brought into his starting XI.
Although United have kept two clean sheets in both of Rangnick’s league games so far, their newfound high-octane system has occasionally left them looking vulnerable at the back, just as they were under his predecessor, Solskjaer.
Quite simply, they have missed the experience of Varane. A towering presence alongside Harry Maguire. In his absence, United have occasionally looked all at sea. Chaos, hurried clearances and lapse marking were all hallmarks during the final days of Solskjaer’s reign, and Rangnick quickly identified these areas as needing instant improvements.
Against Palace, that happened. Patrick Vieira’s side struggled to get to grips with United flooding them in a suffocating press for around two thirds of the game. Those clad in red earned three points after Fred bent a sublime effort into the net.
The all-too familiar failings returned at Norwich, though. Again, United won, courtesy of a single goal, but they were extremely fortunate not to concede. Indeed, it was only the heroics of David de Gea, who is back to his best, that earned the shut-out.
As a result, Varane’s return is timed perfectly. Providing he is fully fit and raring to start, he should bring back a degree of calmness to these troubled waters. Maguire has also impressed under Rangnick, and their partnership will be crucial under him.
Should Varane be dropped straight into the team, it will be Victor Lindelof who drops to the bench, perhaps harshly. The ice-cool centre back has long since been criticized for his shortcomings in the air but, more often than not, is reliable enough.
The second big question facing the manager is whether he drops Marcus Rashford, meanwhile. His drop in form has raised eyebrows at Old Trafford, and it may be time for him to be withdrawn from the firing line as he looks to get back to his best.
Against Norwich, he delivered another underwhelming display. The basement side certainly stepped up their energy levels in a bid to shock United. But Rangnick did not hold back when outlining his disappointment with his players’ body language.
He even singled out the ‘offensive department’ for the lack of intensity, with Rashford just one of a handful of big names who flatted to deceive in Norfolk. However, this was not his first poor performance – he has endured too many of them this season.
Dropping Rashford and recalling Cavani would also send out a strong message. Rangnick is a notoriously hard-line tactician, one not afraid to upset the apple cart in order to extract the best out of his players. At United, his approach is no different.
From now until the end of the season, there is not much room for more slip-ups. They have three games in hand over Arsenal, and must win each of them in order to climb above them and take fourth, the final Champions League qualification place.
Varane will only aid this cause, and Rashford being removed from the spotlight may bring back some of the creativity United lacked at Norwich. The two decisions seem like no-brainers, but Rangnick must get these calls right to succeed this season.