As the team sheets filtered through an hour before Manchester United’s Premier League away trip to Chelsea, there was one notable omission: Cristiano Ronaldo.
Michael Carrick, taking charge of only his second match as Man Utd’s interim manager, decided to leave out the Portuguese superstar, raising more than a few eyebrows… and one conspiracy theory from a club legend.
Gary Neville, very much in tinfoil-hat mode, made the claim before kick-off that Carrick’s line-up may not, in fact, be Carrick’s line-up, but instead Man Utd-bound Ralf Rangnick, who has since been confirmed as Ole’s replacement for the rest of the season as the club’s stand-in coach.
Neville tweeted: “A lot of people having a go at Michael Carrick for dropping Ronaldo and picking that MDF. I’ve a feeling that the incoming manager has picked that team as it’s a huge departure from midweek and what they’ve been doing.” A bold claim, and one that has since been disputed by Carrick himself who said: “That’s not the case, no.”
“We came here with a plan. I kind of knew how Chelsea would play and we wanted to stop the passes through to Jorginho and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. There were a few changes to freshen it up and it’s what we decided to go with today. We almost pulled it off.”
However, if you scratch beneath the surface, there may be logic behind Neville’s suggestion.
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The line-up, a 4-3-1-2 with three ‘holding’ midfielders certainly deviated from anything close to a Man Utd line-up this season in the Premier League. Despite some initial teething problems in the first half, the visitors grew into the game and collected a morale-boosting 1-1 draw from the early Premier League pace-setters.
Recent comprehensive thrashings inflicted by rivals Liverpool and Manchester City served as cautionary tales for Man Utd heading into this fixture but Carrick’s men came away from Stamford Bridge with a point on the board after Jadon Sancho netted his first Premier League goal, and feeling like they actually competed.
Thomas Tuchel’s men restored parity through a Jorginho penalty after Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s wayward challenge on Thiago Silva prompted Anthony Taylor to point to the spot, with the Italian coolLy slotting home from 12 yards in trademark fashion. But, Man Utd held on for a valuable point.
So, if Neville’s theory that Rangnick did, in fact, have a say in Carrick’s line-up has some element of truth, what can we expect from Man Utd under a man so often referred to as the godfather of German coaching? There are certainly some interesting early observations from this showdown in the capital.
Carrick opted for a 4-3-1-2 for this contest against the league leaders, deploying Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho in tandem as wide centre-forwards and Bruno Fernandes ‘in the hole’, a selection policy that doesn’t seem too outlandish on the face of it, until you look back at recent Man Utd trends.
Man Utd have only ever deployed a similar strike force, positionally, when playing a back three. Their 3-0 away win over Tottenham, in which they went with a 3-5-2 deploying Ronaldo up front with Edinson Cavani, being a key example. Not once this season have they opted for a front two with a back four in the league.
The question then surfaces: Why is this so important? It may, in fact, have no significance in the grand scheme of things. Sir Alex Ferguson, under whom Carrick played for seven years, regularly deployed a 4-4-2, notably in the 2008 Champions League final win over Chelsea, in which Carrick starred alongside Paul Scholes.
So, perhaps Carrick was simply taking a leaf out of his former manager’s book, and let’s face it, a book immortalised at Old Trafford. But, it is also worth noting that Rangnick has largely been wedded to a 4-4-2 in his career, which often transforms into a 4-2-2-2, but with that same exact blueprint: A back four + two strikers.
In the 2018/19 season, Rangnick guided RB Leipzig to third in the Bundesliga and captivated fans with the intensity and structural discipline of his side. The frontline was Timo Werner inspired, but Leipzig actually finished the campaign with just 29 goals conceded in the Bundesliga, the fewest that season.
It is perhaps no wonder then that Thomas Tuchel, a former protege of Rangnick, espouses such a defensively-obdurate brand. Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 in 2018/19 saw Werner and Yussuf Poulsen deployed as ‘pressing forwards’, while Ibrahima Konate (now at Liverpool under another Rangnick student Jurgen Klopp) and Willi Orban held the fort further back.
The parallels were striking at Stamford Bridge. Sancho and Rashford seemed to take up similar positions and their pressing was evident from minute one, while Man Utd were a lot more defensively sound, making it exceptionally difficult for Chelsea to find openings, certainly helped by their three defensive midfielders.
Manchester United's average positions in the first half against Chelsea. 😳 pic.twitter.com/LAaj0gKKG1
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 28, 2021
Man Utd sat deep, compressed the space and looked to spring counters with devastating pace, ultimately scoring through one such instance, which may explain Ronaldo’s omission who, at 36, may not be so equipped to flourish in a philosophy based on high-octane group pressing and fast breaks.
Of course, Neville’s Rangnick theory may hold no weight at all. Gary Lineker retorted to Neville’s claim by tweeting that there was “no chance of this being true. Zero.” Tuchel himself may have even inadvertently debunked the theory with his post-match comments.
When asked by Sky Sports reporters if he felt he was facing a side with Rangnick’s hallmark on it, he responded: “No. Not at all.”
Of course, such a way of playing can take months, if not years to fully impart on a squad, such are the rigours and demands of Rangnick’s philosophy. But, that is not to say he can’t make an immediate impact on this current Man Utd squad. One only has to look at Tuchel’s immediate success at Chelsea as reason for this.
So, whether it was Carrick channelling his inner Fergie or Rangnick pulling the strings, one thing is for certain: Man Utd took a good point off a ridiculously good Chelsea. However, the incoming German does face a barrage of obstacles with this current squad, not least the question of Ronaldo.
Interestingly, when asked back in 2016 whether he would sign Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, Rangnick replied: “It would be absurd to think that it could work with them here [Leipzig]. They are both too old and too expensive.”
Maybe there is substance in Neville’s claim after all.