'cultural reboot' | 

United still gripped by identity crisis despite Rangnick’s latest restructure

The actions of ‘whinge-bags’ Ronaldo and Fernandes are undermining unity of squad
The antics of Cristiano Ronaldo are not helping unity at Old Trafford. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA

The antics of Cristiano Ronaldo are not helping unity at Old Trafford. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA

James DuckerTelegraph Media Group Limited

Manchester United’s much trumpeted “cultural reboot” under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was, among other things, supposed to do away with the indiscipline, cliques and division that had taken root during the end of Jose Mourinho’s regime.

Yet the challenge now for Ralf Rangnick does not look too dissimilar to the battle Solskjaer faced forging a spirit of togetherness from the splinters of unrest three years ago.

John Murtough, United’s football director, told a fans’ forum three weeks ago that Solskjaer had “reset the club’s culture” – but it has been a strange kind of reset if that is the case.

Anyone watching Tuesday’s dismal 1-1 draw at Newcastle, when Gary Neville branded United’s players a “bunch of whinge-bags”, will have been struck by the palpable discord in the side.

Not for the first time this season, Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes, who seemed to be the main target of Neville’s dismay, spent much of the game waving their arms angrily in frustration at team-mates, who appear increasingly cowed by the frequent gesticulations of the club’s two best players.

Ronaldo, exasperated by the poor service he received, made a familiar beeline for the tunnel at the final whistle, again choosing not to acknowledge the fans – such pithy actions only serve to erode unity at the club.

Fernandes, who lost possession 26 times during the game, eventually saw his frustrations get the better of him when he was booked for dissent and will now miss tonight’s game against Burnley at Old Trafford through suspension.

United currently trail fourth-placed Arsenal by seven points with two games in hand – in a season they were expected to challenge for the title.

Many of the protagonists charged with implementing this cultural reboot have exited the building – Solskjaer, Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna and Martyn Pert with Mike Phelan surely soon to follow suit – but the stark reality is that it has never felt like anything more than a catchy marketing slogan that promised plenty, but delivered little.

Rebrandings are only successful if, beneath the glossy veneer, they are underpinned by substance but Rangnick has not only inherited a losing team, with no semblance of structure, but a squad that does not seem to be pulling in the same direction.

Perhaps only now is the 63-year-old German truly discovering what a mess he has to unpick – and doing so will not only mean hard work, but putting some noses out of joint.

It has been an unhappy camp for months but the change of manager has yet to lift the mood. A host of players still want out and already reports are surfacing of struggles to adjust to Rangnick’s later training sessions.

United’s Covid-19 outbreak, which forced the postponement of matches against Brentford and Brighton and the closure of the training ground, meant Rangnick only had a tiny pool of players to work with while the rest isolated, and that has proven very disruptive.

For a newly-installed manager, who has a very short window in which to try to drive improvement, it could not have been more poorly-timed.

It has certainly not helped the transition to a 4-2-2-2 system that was effective for the first half of his first game in charge, against Crystal Palace, but which has since mostly confounded the players.

However, one of the most concerning aspect of the Norwich and Newcastle games was that the performances were in keeping with the final months of Solskjaer’s tenure. Control of games seem elusive and United were again indebted to their goalkeeper, David De Gea, for rescuing them valuable points against relegation-threatened opponents who created and squandered a glut of excellent chances.

United have only conceded twice in four matches under Rangnick, but they have also ridden their luck.

Rangnick has spoken repeatedly about the need for control but United, who lost possession 169 times against Newcastle, are still too often guilty of turning over the ball almost as quickly as they have won it back – by attempting passes which are not on or, in other cases, through sheer carelessness.

There is a huge difference between calculated risk-taking and routinely making the wrong decision – and it is a critical balance United are frequently unable to strike.

Fernandes was particularly culpable of that at St James’ Park but so were Marcus Rashford and captain Harry Maguire, whose sustained slump in form is becoming a deepening concern.

Similarly troubling is the lack of chemistry and cohesion in attack.

They required a penalty from Ronaldo to beat Norwich, who have conceded 10 goals in three subsequent matches to Aston Villa, Arsenal and Palace and had half as many shots on target as Newcastle, who had conceded 11 times in their three previous games to Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester City.

The reset requires another reset.

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