Are the green shoots of recovery finally showing for Ralf Rangnick and Manchester United?

After a tough start to life at Old Trafford there are finally some encouraging signs for the interim manager.
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As the clock ticked towards injury-time at Old Trafford, there was a general air of frustration among the home supporters, a feeling that their side hadn’t pushed enough to find that late winner.

Three minutes later, and the stadium had gone berserk, as fans jubilantly celebrated Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time winner against West Ham United.

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It proved to be Manchester United’s final touch of the ball, and the irritations of not just an afternoon, but an entire season, were evident in those post-match celebrations.

Without jumping on the bandwagon, this seemed like a significant moment in the Red Devils’ season, with Ralf Rangnick’s men suddenly jumping to fourth in the table, a position the German would happily settle for come the end of May.

Rashford’s late goal settled the three points for United. Credit: Getty.Rashford’s late goal settled the three points for United. Credit: Getty.
Rashford’s late goal settled the three points for United. Credit: Getty.

There is even a sense that finally his ideas are starting to get across to the players, that he has an idea of how this team should operate. That’s one loss in 10 games for the 63-year-old now, whose switch to a 4-3-3 shape has had an immediate effect on the team.

Scott McTominay, Fred and Bruno Fernandes all seem suited to this shape, even if it’s only a slight alteration from how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer structured his midfield.

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It’s in the centre where opposition sides have enjoyed so much domination across the course of the season, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday, with West Ham failing to really pull the strings or create significant attacks through the middle.

Admittedly, this is a Hammers side who were happy to sit deep and look to break, but United’s biggest criticism has been their deficiencies through the middle and, regardless of the opposition’s set-up, they weren’t evident at Old Trafford.

It wasn’t a happy return to Old Trafford for David Moyes. Credit: Getty.It wasn’t a happy return to Old Trafford for David Moyes. Credit: Getty.
It wasn’t a happy return to Old Trafford for David Moyes. Credit: Getty.

Nor did attackers Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals or Michail Antonio really threaten the United defence, although Jarrod Bowen had a number of lively moments.

United also looked resolute at the back with Harry Maguire impressing on his return to the team, while Diogo Dalot continues to thrive at right-back. Even the pressure out of possession was improved in periods, and United did have extended spells on top against Aston Villa and Brentford in their last two games.

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But for all the positives which have come from a switch to 4-3-3, it was the much-maligned 4-2-2-2 shape that ultimately saw United grab their winner on Saturday, with the Red Devils operating in that system after Rangnick’s late changes.

One of those was Anthony Martial, who did receive a few jeers as he came on, but even his cameo showing is a positive for United after Rangnick claimed just a week ago that he didn’t want to be selected in the team.

Martial made his first appearance under Rangnick. Credit: Getty.Martial made his first appearance under Rangnick. Credit: Getty.
Martial made his first appearance under Rangnick. Credit: Getty.

Martial even played a significant role in the goal, with the Frenchman receiving the ball from Cristiano Ronaldo, before laying it to fellow substitute Edinson Cavani, who crossed it to the waiting Rashford at the back post.

Rangnick celebrated with glee on the sidelines and must have taken some personal satisfaction in his 4-2-2-2 system finally showing it can, in fact, work in the right circumstances.

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The interim manager does deserve credit for the alteration. It may seem the obvious solution to throw attackers onto the pitch, but deploying them in a structure which can create and take chances is another matter.

It’s also the final match of this mini chapter in the season, with United now having a 13-day break until they’re next in action. That’s two weeks to bask in the glow of that Rashford winner, compared to the speculation and melancholy which have existed in previous international breaks this season.

It also gives Rangnick a first real extended spell on the training pitch to get his ideas across to the players following the fixture-heavy and Covid-impacted first month-and-a-half of his United tenure.

There’s no doubting this United squad is still capable of the most horrendous of collapses in the final months of the season, but after a campaign of such disappointment, suddenly the green shoots of recovery appear to be poking through.

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Had Rashford not netted late on, that feeling, and even this article, would be skewed differently, but he poked home at the back post and United won. The next challenge is building on this tentative momentum.

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