The Ralf Rangnick era is under way and has an unlikely first hero, though perhaps a fitting one too. If this interim interregnum is all about taking players who appeared broken under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and repairing, repurposing and restoring them, then who better to get things going than Fred?
The much-maligned Manchester United midfielder was injuring his own goalkeeper on this ground only three days ago. Now, on the occasion of Rangnick’s first game in temporary charge, he was a match-winner, serenaded to a Joy Division tune by those still sat in the Stretford End while doing his post-match media duties. David de Gea’s ankles aren’t the only thing he is tearing apart now.
You can add a stubborn though largely second-best Crystal Palace to that list. Patrick Vieira’s side held out for 77 minutes only to be defeated by Fred’s uncharacteristically spectacular strike from range. This could all have taken on a very complexion if Jordan Ayew had converted one of this game’s few genuine chances just minutes earlier but, even so, it was a win that United just about deserved.
The watchword from Rangnick’s unveiling earlier this week was ‘control’ and, against opponents who had already won on the other side of Manchester this season, United were comfortable for the most part. There was a sense of command and authority about their play that always eluded Solskjaer, but particularly early on in this game, when the players still had plenty left in the tank to execute Rangnick’s intense, high-pressing style.
Even once that fast start slowed down, this contest did not revert to harum-scarum stuff of the past three years. Yes, Ayew went close. Yes, United lacked a cutting edge at times and struggled to create clear chances. But they were the protagonists of this story rather than equal participants and eventually, when Mason Greenwood laid the ball onto Fred’s weaker right foot on the edge and the arcing shot rose into the top left-hand corner, they wrote their own happy ending.
Rangnick walked out of Stretford End tunnel in the unique position of being an interim manager on a six-month contract who is expected – judging by the hype around his appointment, at least – to reshape the club and define a long-term vision for consistent, sustained success.
An unchanged team sheet from the win against Arsenal on Thursday night was the first hint that his time in the Old Trafford dugout may be more evolution than revolution. That team sheet was printed on paper, though. Out on the pitch, the unchanged line-up looked different.
Rangnick opted for the 4-2-2-2 system he used throughout much of his last managerial spell, at RB Leipzig three seasons ago, with the ‘middle two’ – Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes – positioned wide and alternating between playing on the left and right, behind a strike partnership of Cristiano Ronaldo.
You will know by now that just about everyone has questioned whether Ronaldo’s pared back playing style is well-suited to gegenpressing, but he was just as much a part of United’s purposeful start as any of his team-mates, sending in one far post cross for a free header that Fernandes only narrowly failed to connect with.
The connection between those two Portuguese compatriots was looking more promising than ever. A long ball over the top by Fernandes found an unmarked Ronaldo, who chested down with his back to goal inside the box, but the angle was narrow and Marc Guehi came between the subsequent shot and Palace’s goal.
When Guehi’s centre-back partner James Tomkins blocked Fred’s attempt after another encouraging United attack, Old Trafford surged with both appreciation and expectation, as if beginning to believe that this was now a proper football team again, capable of dominating opponents rather than determining the result on a roulette wheel.
The question was, could they sustain it? After the half-hour mark passed, United remained on top but the intensity of their early play noticeably ebbed. Diogo Dalot continued to impress having come in for Aaron Wan-Bissaka against Arsenal and sent a curling, left-footed effort just wide on the cusp of half time.
But really, that was as close as United had come to scoring, and clear-cut chances did not abound after the break either. Alex Telles saw a free-kick skim the top of the crossbar but Vicente Guaita, in Palace’s goal, had it covered. Rangnick introduced Mason Greenwood on the hour but replaced Sancho, United’s brightest spark by some distance up until that point.
Solskjaer’s final Old Trafford game as manager was memorable for the chants of Donny van de Beek’s name which emerged from the Stretford End as that defeat in the Manchester derby progressed. Those chants were heard once again, yet Rangnick overlooked the £40m player and turned to 19-year-old Anthony Elanga, for only his third senior appearance.
Yet the best opportunity of the afternoon would fall to Palace, in fact. Having previously posed little threat, Vieira’s side should have taken the lead when Tomkins leaped highest to meet a Tyrick Mitchell corner and the ball fell to an unmarked Jordan Ayew, only a few yards out, yet he screwed his shot across the face of goal and wide.
That was the one golden opportunity that Vieira’s disciplined setup had been designed to create and capitalise on and it had gone. Just two minutes later, Fred was wheeling away towards the corner where the Stretford End meets the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, celebrating the sixth goal of his United career and, perhaps, a fresh start.
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