Man Utd crashed to a sixth defeat in their past 14 Premier League outings on Monday
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Ralf Rangnick is facing a battle to quell dressing room unrest at Manchester United with confidence and morale on the floor and around a third of the senior squad open to leaving Old Trafford in pursuit of regular football or a fresh start.
United crashed to a sixth defeat in their past 14 Premier League outings on Monday night when Wolverhampton Wanderers claimed a first win at Old Trafford since 1980, the latest side to end a long wait for victory at a stadium whose aura of invincibility has disintegrated since Sir Alex Ferguson retired nine years ago.
The crumbling of fortress Old Trafford
Less than a week after Gary Neville branded United’s players a “bunch of whinge-bags” and midfielder Scott McTominay revealed that Rangnick had ordered the squad to sort out their poor body language on the pitch, defender Luke Shaw pointed to a lack of togetherness and motivation in the wake of the Wolves debacle.
With United not back in action until next Monday when Aston Villa visit Old Trafford in the FA Cup third round, Shaw said “maybe the manager can bring some more ideas of what he wants on the pitch”, although the squad are not due to report back until Thursday after two days off.
But Rangnick has so far struggled to drive improvement in the five weeks since replacing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on an interim basis and inheriting a raft of problems from the former manager.
Interim manager Ralf Rangnick has failed to have the desired effect so far at Old Trafford
And his battles to motivate and win over the squad are not being helped by the dwindling confidence of some players and the disillusionment of others, issues that festered under Solskjaer but which Rangnick urgently needs to address in the pursuit of a top four finish. United currently trail Arsenal in fourth by four points with a game in hand.
“I’m waiting for the players individually to be built up and that’s one of the big key points,” former United defender Rio Ferdinand said on his Vibe with Five podcast. “I thought that was going to be a real jolt, and a real jump and a real shift when this new manager came in.
“Yes, he needs time, but again after the first game I haven’t seen a real shift in that confidence and those performances from individuals to elevate us as a team.”
Rangnick has already admitted that players want to leave and the squad is too big but hinted that he could block potential departures in the transfer window this month in order to ensure he has the bodies to provide some protection against the threat of another Covid-19 outbreak.
However, there are concerns such a stance will do little to improve togetherness with a number of wantaway players unconvinced they will get the playing time they crave between now and May and frustrated by a lack of opportunities despite the team’s dismal form.
Furthermore, with Rangnick only in charge until the end of the season as United search for a new permanent manager, several new figures on the coaching staff and multiple players eyeing the exit door, sources said so much uncertainty was adding to the doubts and a feeling of a club “treading water” as another overhaul awaits.
There is recognition that Rangnick’s task was complicated last month by a Covid-19 outbreak that forced the postponement of two matches and the temporary closure of the training ground but they are not the only club to have faced such disruption.
The players that want out – and those that can’t get out
Anthony Martial has been frozen out but told he will be going nowhere unless potential suitors agree to pay a loan fee and all of the France striker’s £200,000 a week wages.
As things stand, England goalkeeper Dean Henderson has been informed he will not be allowed to leave on loan this month.
Rangnick has also told Donny van de Beek that he wants him to stay until the end of the season and that he will get playing time but the Holland midfielder did not get on the pitch again against Wolves and is continuing to look at potential loan options with his career at a crossroads. All three are concerned that another half a season spent on the sidelines could have serious repercussions for their hopes of going to the World Cup finals at the end of the year.
Eric Bailly was surprised to be recalled for last week’s win against Burnley when he was set to join up with the Ivory Coast squad for the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon. Although he was understood to be fit, Bailly was then left out of the squad to face Wolves and is now due to join up with Ivory Coast this week. Phil Jones, who made his first appearance for two years on Monday, and Juan Mata are also eager for more regular playing time.
Rangnick also has to manage the situation involving Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani, all of whom are expected to leave as free agents in the summer. Cavani has been told he will not be permitted to leave this month because of his importance to the team. Lingard remains an outcast under Rangnick and Pogba is taking no chances with his fitness after two months out with a thigh injury.
Rangnick faces another challenge to restore confidence. Marcus Rashford, Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are all in the midst of prolonged slumps in form that are causing consternation. “We haven’t yet seen the Sancho of Dortmund, Rashford looks like a shadow of his former self, Cavani isn’t firing really, Wan-Bissaka is shot of confidence, Maguire is lacking confidence at the moment,” Ferdinand said.
Rashford has not scored in his past 10 matches and appears particularly down, with sources indicating that the low morale at the club was affecting some more badly than others. Ferdinand said Rashford’s “body language is an issue”.
“Marcus Rashford comes off the bench and you are expecting him to go out there and really fly and give it some,” he said. “And sometimes you see him losing the ball and the reaction to losing the ball isn’t what you want to see sometimes. That could be down to him not being happy not playing. But you’ve got to put that to one side.”