Manchester United's new interim manager Ralf Rangnick is likely to take the club into the top four, Alex Keble argues.
"Surprisingly, despite such a poor start to the season Man Utd are only five points outside the top four. There is plenty of time to improve their situation and qualify for the Champions League."
Ralf Rangnick has been officially announced as Manchester United's interim manager and it is no surprise that the club are now favourites to complete the Premier League's top four, at 2.111/10.
Although Rangnick has never worked in England, he has been a successful temporary manager at Stuttgart and RB Leipzig, but more importantly brings with him an impressive CV for how to build a modern club - and Man Utd are in desperate need of modernisation.
Often seen as the godfather of German football as it is understood today, he helped create the concept of gegenpressing and quick attacking football played in vertical lines. Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp are among his disciples, and while Rangnick has not managed at quite such a high level before his influence on these two tells us he will fit in with how the Premier League looks in 2021.
The most important part of his arrival, however, is those two years lined up as a consultant. Rangnick single-handedly built the Red Bull empire and structured Hoffenheim and Stuttgart from top to bottom; he is an innovator in scouting, training, and pretty much every other aspect of managing a club.
Down the line, he is likely to become a major influence on the club's transfer decisions and the type of player United will sign - think Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham - but for now his focus is improving results on the pitch.
Surprisingly, despite such a poor start to the season Man Utd are only five points outside the top four. There is plenty of time to improve their situation and qualify for the Champions League.
How Rangnick's United will line up
The players are about to receive serious culture shock. Rangnick is a highly demanding coach who teaches with the tactical detail that was sorely missing under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The squad will be put through its paces, expected to press extremely hard for 90 minutes and start to play some piercingly sharp attacking football.
This naturally suits some players more than others, but United should have enough quality for Rangnick to get them on the right track. Jadon Sancho, trained for years by Rangnick-inspired Borussia Dortmund, will quickly adapt to the system and become a key player from the outset.
Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are in desperate need of more focused coaching, but as hungry and intelligent young players they should be able to closely follow the new manager's instructions. Along with Sancho, they can become hard-pressing strikers with the speed to play Germanic football.
In midfield Donny van de Beek has all the attributes of a Rangnick midfielder. His propensity to play direct football, always looking for the forward pass, and to make runs beyond the striker fits exactly with the demands of the new order. Meanwhile Fred, an agile midfielder once wanted by Pep Guardiola to replace Fernandinho, could be reborn with proper coaching.
Ronaldo and defending issues could derail them
The biggest concern fo Rangnick, beyond having so little time on the training ground to get his ideas across, is how to use Cristiano Ronaldo. His very poor pressing statistics are well known, and while tolerated by Solskjaer there is no way Rangnick will let the Portuguese lead the line unless he changes his ways.
This could be a fascinating power struggle, although Rangnick generally gets on well wtih his player and may be able to find a graceful solution. Perhaps Ronaldo will be deployed on the left wing, staying high in a 4-4-2 when United don't have the ball, in order to take him out of the most important pressing area.
United's defence is another problem. The team has generally only performed well when deployed in a deep block, such is the lack of pace of flexibilty in their central defenders, and it is worrying to think of Harry Maguire having to scramble back from the half-way line.
Why a top-four finish is likely
But if anyone can solve these issues in a short time frame it is Rangnick, and United can afford to be well below perfect to still achieve their adjusted season goal of a top-four finish.
Currently in fourth, West Ham United have now lost two on the bounce and seem unlikely to maintain their momentum over the next 25 games. David Moyes is doing a superb job but West Ham are not strong beyond their first 11, so any injury is likely to derail them. Arsenal, level with the Hammers, are on good form but they continue to look vulnerable against top-half opponents; a tough run of games through December is likely to see them drop back out of contention.
United's main rivals, assuming Wolves aren't going to pull off a miracle, are Tottenham Hotspur, and indeed Antonio Conte is a better manager than Rangnick. But Conte's is a considerably more lopsided squad that is notably weak in central midfield and in the wing-back positions, crucial areas of Conte's 3-4-2-1 that will probably hold them back this season.
Man Utd, then, have few serious rivals to stop them grabbing fourth spot and resetting in the summer.
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