The unbeaten start against Crystal Palace, Young Boys and Norwich might have stretched further, beyond meetings with Brentford and Brighton. Even if it hadn’t, there would at least be a much clearer picture of exactly what to expect from his United and his players would be getting more and more familiar with his methods.
Instead, a Covid outbreak within the squad has caused back-to-back postponements and United’s new era under one of the most influential figures in European football over the past decade is on hold.
Three games is not much time to turn this tanker around, nor is it a particularly big sample size, especially when the second of those three games was a dead rubber with an understrength starting line-up.
Yet if there is one thing Rangnick is associated with – aside from gegenpressing (pressing high when out of possession in to win the ball back as soon as a team loses it) – it is advocating a data-driven approach to analysis, which powered the Red Bull group’s progress since his appointment as their director of football in 2012.
And even though his interim spell is only three games in, there are still signs both out on the pitch and in the early numbers of the difference that his appointment has made, as well as the areas which remain in need of improvement.
7.8 passes per defensive action
If Rangnick was expected to bring one thing to United from the very beginning, it was a more intense, better coordinated press.
United’s attempts to press under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were sporadic at best and often woefully uncoordinated. The 5-0 defeat to Liverpool was full of moments where United’s attempts to step up and apply pressure to the ball were easily broken over and over again, most notably in the build-up to Naby Keita’s opening goal.
A team’s level of pressing can partly be observed by looking at how many passes their opponents are able to make before there is an attempt to win the ball back. Under Rangnick’s predecessor, United allowed 13.4 opposition passes per defensive action (PPDA).
This put United somewhere around lower mid-table for pressing intensity across the Premier League, in line with its inconsistent implementation under Solskjaer.
Under Rangnick, United have pressed nearly twice as much as they did while Solskjaer was in charge. The number of passes allowed per defensive action fell to 7.8-per-game against Palace and Norwich.
As was evident in both games, United have a more intense press under Rangnick but even more encouragingly, they have a better press too.
Before Rangnick’s appointment, only 28 per cent of United’s attempts to press were successful, resulting in the ball being won back within five seconds. Since his arrival, that figure has climbed to 35 per cent.
These are early days but the loose, uncoordinated pressing of old appears to be a thing of the past. This is the most obvious impact that Rangnick has had and the most obvious difference between his United and Solskjaer’s.
49% field tilt
But while there was plenty of attention on Rangnick’s preference for gegenpressing leading up to his first game in charge, United’s new manager had an entirely different priority upon arrival at Old Trafford.
“Football, for me, is to minimise the coincidence factor and have control and gain control of a game,” Rangnick said on his unveiling. “It's not about playing pressing or counterpressing for pressing sake, it’s about control. This is the major target.”
Two days later, United put in one of their most controlled performances of the season, having the vast majority of the play against Crystal Palace before eventually going ahead through that rarest of things: a long-range Fred goal, scored with his weaker right foot.
Rangnick was delighted with how quickly his players had adapted to his methods and the level of control they exerted in victory. Has that been maintained? Arguably not.
Whereas United dominated possession by 61 per cent against Palace, they actually saw marginally less of the ball than both Young Boys and Norwich in their following two games.
And though United also dominated in terms of territory against Palace, making 72 per cent of the final third passes, that figure fell to 33 per cent and 41 per cent against Young Boys and Norwich respectively. This is a concept called “field tilt” and it is a useful measure of how often a team was able to take the attacking initiative in a game, rather than just holding onto possession for the sake of it.
United parked themselves in Palace’s half for Rangnick’s debut but with both the second-string line-up against Young Boys and a first-choice XI at Carrow Road, they did not exert the same level of control or play with the same sustained attacking intensity. An average of 49 per cent field tilt across all three games points to a team that is still trying to exert its influence over opponents.
Rangnick admitted as much in his post-match interviews after both the Young Boys and Norwich games and knows that work still needs to be done before United win games convincingly.
1.0 expected goals (xG) conceded per game
Other than “control”, Rangnick has been keen to stress the importance of another of football’s fundamentals: keeping clean sheets.
At his unveiling, he also noted that United had been conceding almost two goals per game on average before his arrival. “This is just too much,” he said. In his opinion, conceding fewer goals was a higher priority than scoring more for a simple reason.
“With the players that we have, they are always able to score goals. I’m not worried about that at all,” he reiterated before the trip to Norwich. “It’s about making sure we get as many clean sheets as we can.”
So far, so good. Two clean sheets and only one goal conceded in his first three games in charge would suggest that United are already making progress on that front. There has certainly been less of the chaotic defending that defined some late-era Solskjaer performances.
Even so, United were heavily reliant upon David de Gea to shut out Norwich. Young Boys not only scored but created several decent chances against an admittedly much-changed line-up. But even against Palace, in a game which United controlled, Jordan Ayew was guilty of missing a gilt-edged chance just before Fred’s winner.
Across Rangnick’s three games, United have conceded an average of 12 shots on goal, which is only marginally less than the 13 per game allowed under Solskjaer earlier this season.
And while xG data makes for a more favourable comparison, United have still conceded 1.0 xG per game over the last three. Given the modest standard of opposition, that is quite high. And given the fact that chances have not exactly been free-flowing at the other end, they are perhaps a touch fortunate to have come away with not only an unbeaten record but two wins in three.
Rangnick has correctly identified United’s defence as an area in need of improvement. The 1.6 xG conceded per game over the season is the fifth-worst in the top flight – a drastically poor figure given pre-season expectations of a title challenge.
Those expectations have been lowered considerably over the months since, with a top-four finish now the best United can really hope for. Rangnick has made a good start on the way to achieving that, but he will know better than anyone else that there is still a long way to go.
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