Football Features

Fred’s new forward-thinking role encapsulates Ralf Rangnick’s approach as Man Utd see off Palace

By Ben Green

Published: 16:18, 5 December 2021

Ralf Rangnick’s reign as Manchester United’s interim manager is up and running after he executed a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon.

There was no major reception, no big announcement before kick-off, with Rangnick occupying the dugout in a lowkey manner and immediately showcasing what he will bring to the 13-time Premier League champions over the next six months.

The Red Devils ultimately secured the win through a stellar Fred strike, with the Brazilian catching Mason Greenwood’s pass sweetly to fire past Vicente Guaita and raise the Old Trafford roof. Lift off for Rangnick in one of football’s most pressurised hotseats.

A dream debut would have been a win and a clean sheet, but the manner of the victory will come as a more encouraging sign for Man Utd fans. Their side played with an intensity, aggression and front-footed approach that has eluded Old Trafford for much of this campaign.

Setting up in his favoured 4-2-2-2, there was an unfamiliar feel to United from minute one, with Jadon Sancho playing far more centrally, and interchanging with typical No. 10 Bruno Fernandes, with Marcus Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo dovetailing in tandem a little further forward.

If it was unfamiliar in set-up, it was also unfamiliar in feel, as United closed Crystal Palace down quickly, almost froth-mouthed and hungry. Patrick Vieira, back at a very familiar ground, could only stand and watch as his side were swamped by a siege of high-pressing red shirts in the first half.

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And no player encapsulated that approach more than Fred. Playing in a more advanced role, the mercurial midfielder was almost given carte blanche to progress up the pitch, making vertical movements, rather than the lateral strides that have almost become synonymous with his playing style.

There have only been three matches in the Premier League this season where Fred has made 10 or more passes into the final third. One was against Arsenal on Thursday in the 3-2 win, another in Man Utd’s 1-1 draw with Everton, and now here against Palace, with two of the three coming post-Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The reward for that new approach? An assist on Thursday and the match-winner on Sunday. It is also worth noting here that Man Utd made more passes into the final (77) against Palace than any other opponent in the Premier League this season. Rangnick’s influence was tangible.

Following the match, Rangnick even heaped praise on Fred, but was more focused on his influence throughout the game, particularly his off-the-ball movement with Scott McTominay, rather than his match-winning finish, which just emphasises the German’s tactical fixation.

“Fred and Scotty [McTominay] were almost perfect when the other team had the ball,” Rangnick observed after the contest.

One only has to look at United’s average positions and formation (above graphic) against Palace in conjunction with their visualisation for the rest of the season under Solskjaer (and the two games with Michael Carrick ‘at the helm’) to notice the difference between styles.

United pressed and occupied the opposition half with a swagger and authority that typified the club under Sir Alex Ferguson. Here United rolled back the years with an up-and-at-em focus that should quench the Old Trafford crowd’s thirst for an attacking brand.

Palace, though, did come back into the game after the break. Taking the initial sting and buzz out of United’s intensity that dominated the opening exchanges. Rangnick is radical in his approach, but even his philosophy will take more than a few training sessions to fully imprint.

But, the early signs are encouraging, with Fred taking centre stage and potentially laying down a marker that he will transform into a more dominant and authoritative presence under Rangnick. A promising start indeed for the German coach. And for Fred.

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