Is Ralf building the foundation for success?
It is never easy for any manager to come into a side midway through a season and swiftly change playing styles and a team's identity.
Ralf Rangnick was under no illusions about the size of the task in this respect when becoming interim manager and, with a rare chance to pause for breath afforded by an international break, it is worth looking at some of the fundamental signs that progress is being made.
Sitting in a top-four place as we approach February is an obvious reason for positivity, following the weekend's results, but there are more reasons for optimism.
Firstly, the German pledged to have a close look at the players at his disposal, which is a useful exercise for any coach.
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Some 31 Reds have obtained minutes since Ralf took charge, including a pair of Academy rookies in Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage, in a Champions League tie with Young Boys that granted the opportunity for a third debutant in Tom Heaton.
Mason Greenwood has featured the most, in all 10 games, with Diogo Dalot level as the next most-used outfield player on eight (David De Gea has been selected on nine occasions, only missing that Young Boys draw).
Dalot and Alex Telles (six appearances) have enjoyed more game-time and although injuries and illness needs to be taken into account, nobody can accuse Rangnick of not taking a close look at his options. Paul Pogba will be a fresh one of these, when he returns from injury, hopefully next month.
The bare facts of the 10 matches are these: won six, drawn three and lost one. Break this down to Premier League only and it becomes played eight, won five, drawn two and lost one. Room for improvement, as I am sure most people would agree, but definitely promising figures, even if there will be tough assignments to come.
Despite some of the naturally adverse reaction to the defeat to Wolves in our first game of 2022, there has definitely been a solid start in terms of points on the board.
Four clean sheets in this period is a decent achievement, three of them at home which provide an indicator that it is hopefully becoming more difficult to breach our defence at Old Trafford. If you consider that Burnley and Brentford only scored consolations when three goals down, there has been real improvement on this front.
Indeed, it was something pointed out by Rangnick after his first game at the helm, the win over Crystal Palace. It represented a first home shut-out of the campaign, and only the fourth in all competitions, and this was an area that needed addressing.
Yes, the concession of a two-goal lead at Aston Villa was painful but it is the only time we have let in more than one goal in a game under the interim boss.
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That game in the Midlands was notable because Ralf did admit he felt, in retrospect, he made a mistake in not tightening things up in the second half, when we had the lead. In the next match, at Brentford, he changed things around and was rewarded with a 3-1 victory. Last time out, he threw caution to the wind when chasing a winner, and all three substitutes combined for Marcus Rashford's close-ranger that brought the house down.
Squad management is probably a thankless task at times but the stats support the view that our substitutes are capable of having huge impacts. The boss has made some shrewd decisions when utilising his bench and this is always going to be a key part of our game management. At times, it will be about exerting control, which is a theme that pervades Rangnick's work and coaching philosophy.
Maybe it's an extra defender to help preserve a lead, like at Brentford, a Nemanja Matic, for instance, to shield the back four and sit in midfield, or a fresh pair of legs in attack to spice things up going forward (Rashford has scored in his last two games off the bench). One thing that is for sure is United controlled much of the match against West Ham, limiting a side who were fourth in the table at the start of play to very few opportunities, and not being forced to rely on some De Gea heroics, which has been the case with the Spaniard winning back-to-back Player of the Month awards.
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A draw against the Hammers would have been met, no doubt, with a great deal of negativity, even if the eye-test was suggesting changes are being implemented on the Reds' playing style.
Again sticking to basics, we made 22 tackles against David Moyes's men when the previous best tally under the boss was 18, as we fought for possession and looked to win the ball against hard-working opponents. Defensively, we looked sound and this is a firm base to build on, as Ralf has pointed out since the early days of his tenure.
Yes, a last-minute winner can alter the mood dramatically. We would like to look more potent in attack and enjoy such control with a greater threat on the opposition goal. Yet you sense these are the next elements that can be finessed on the training ground at Carrington.
The positive signs were evident even before Rashford's winner on Saturday. We can hope that the surge in adrenaline and excitement from that magical moment will accelerate the process of implementing more of Ralf's playing style. It certainly feels like progress is being made and steps are clearly being taken in the right direction.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.