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ron the bench Why Manchester United must play around a plan, not Ronaldo

Rangnick will impose a definite system – he’s a coach all about organisation, process, method, detail and ideology

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Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo takes instructions from Michael Carrick as he prepares to come on as a substitute during the Premier League clash against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo takes instructions from Michael Carrick as he prepares to come on as a substitute during the Premier League clash against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Ralf Rangnick

Ralf Rangnick

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Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo takes instructions from Michael Carrick as he prepares to come on as a substitute during the Premier League clash against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Whether or not Ralf Rangnick had a hand in dropping Cristiano Ronaldo for Manchester United’s Premier League meeting against Chelsea, it was certainly a move that will help the club’s new interim manager.

We have to take on face value Michael Carrick’s argument that it was his decision alone – even if there was understandable scepticism about that claim – but either way the caretaker has done Rangnick a favour. Leaving Ronaldo out from now on is not going to be as big a deal given Rangnick will not be the first United manager to do it for a big game. Yes, Ronaldo was omitted from the starting XI against Everton in October, but that was because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rested him.

Maybe, with Arsenal and Crystal Palace at home within 72 hours, that was also part of Carrick’s thinking. After all, it is easier to leave Ronaldo out for an away game rather than in front of an expectant Old Trafford singing his name.

But Carrick may also have been second-guessing the incoming interim manager. Knowing Rangnick’s reputation as the ‘Godfather of gegenpressing’, and knowing he would have been watching from afar, it made sense that more youth and energy was needed up front against the league leaders.

Now for the really interesting part – what happens next. When Ronaldo was signed, Solskjaer, giving the unfortunate impression that he was more a fan than a manager, gushed that he was not returning to United to “sit on the bench”. It was a statement that did not need to be made, an indulgent, complacent line that got to the heart of the Ronaldo conundrum at United.

So entrenched are the pro- and anti-Ronaldo camps that you are either almost part of a cult to believe United would be lost without him or heretical to think – as I do – that the team might actually function better if he did not start every game. If he had joined Manchester City he would have been rotated.

It is undoubtedly true that United would not be in the last 16 of the Champions League without Ronaldo’s six goals in the competition. But then they are eighth in the Premier League, where he has scored once in his last eight appearances. And, as he approaches his 37th birthday, if you take away the goals, what are you getting from him?

What has to be true is that Rangnick will impose a definite system. He is a coach all about organisation, process, method, detail and ideology. He has never given the impression of a coach who cares about names and reputations. He is not a ‘star whisperer’ who wants to massage egos.

If United expect him to change, or he feels the need to do so, it would be a dangerous step. They have surely employed Rangnick to be who he is and replicate what he has done until now and there was a hint of that in the announcement confirming his appointment in which he was hailed as an “innovator”. Certainly sidelining Ronaldo would be some innovation.

The 63-year-old German is inheriting a hotch-potch of a squad which has the influences of five different managers, stretching back to Alex Ferguson and taking in David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer. But it has no identity. No ‘United Way’. Solskjaer spoke about it but never gave the impression that he knew what it was beyond trying to bring back the glory days.

This is very different from the ‘start-ups’ at Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, and the Red Bull group, that have defined Rangnick’s recent work and which presumably persuaded United that he was their man in this latest crisis.

It means that if Ronaldo becomes a casualty then, unfortunately, so be it. The brutal truth is that whatever they have been doing so far with him as the focus of the team has simply has not worked.

Rangnick arrives with a mandate not just to bring immediate success and salvage United’s season, with the club clearly hoping he will have the same effect as his protégé Thomas Tuchel had at Chelsea last January, but of providing a road-map for the future in the way the team plays and the players they recruit.

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It is easy to see how Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood and so on should be able to fit into the system that Rangnick will impose if they want to – otherwise they will be sold. It is harder to see how it will work for Ronaldo especially if Rangnick does introduce his famed countdown clock on the training ground as he barks out instructions that possession is won back within eight seconds.

At the same time will Rangnick give up on Ronaldo? Although that would appear dangerous he can go about the job rather in the way that Rafael Benítez did when he was interim manager at Chelsea, not caring about upsetting big names such as John Terry because he knew he was only there for a few months.

Undoubtedly, Rangnick needs to effect change. He needs to shake it up. He needs to innovate. How that is achieved will be absorbing and not least because it leads to the inevitable conclusion that, if Rangnick does play the football he is so closely associated with, Ronaldo will not be a regular starter.

Will he be happy on the bench as the world’s highest-paid impact sub? Absolutely not. It will not work. We have seen a glimpse of how that plays out with him storming down the tunnel at the final whistle against Chelsea, just as he did against Everton.

But ultimately it comes down to this: is it right for United to plan around what a manager wants and the structure he can impose rather than what a player symbolises? By hiring Rangnick, it appears they have already answered that question.

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