Were Manchester United preparing for Ralf Rangnick’s arrival with their approach against Chelsea?

Manchester United did not play Ralf Rangnick football against Chelsea. Their incoming head coach did not pick the team, not least because without a work permit yet he could not actually have any formal involvement in running the club.

Equally, those who had seen Rangnick’s great Bundesliga sides would hardly see United’s performance to eke out a 1-1 draw and think they were the English incarnation of Hoffenheim. But, compared to what the Red Devils have produced in the past, it did at least feel like a step in that general direction. You could at least imagine this was a team prepared to give Rangnick a sense of where his new charges are, and what they can do when asked to play in the fashion the German favors without the ball.

United were understandably at great pains to emphasize this was Carrick’s team, and that it was the plan that he thought was best suited to getting a positive result at Chelsea, something which the visitors did indeed manage albeit through a fair degree more good fortune than execution.

But, if this was not Rangnick’s team, then you could certainly feel his invisible hand shaping proceedings. The ageing virtuoso Cristiano Ronaldo was cast to the bench to make room for a frontline that screamed youth and energy. In his place started two younger models, one of whom in Jadon Sancho is particularly well versed in high pressing football after his years in the Bundesliga.

Without the ball, United were as aggressive as they have been in some time. Their 21 attempted tackles were the most in a Premier League match this season and for the first time they ended up on the winning end of more than half of them. Having allowed Manchester City and Liverpool to rack up an average of over six passes per attacking sequence, according to Opta data, that number fell to just 3.6 against Chelsea, with Carrick’s side determined to chase down possession more energetically.

Even the formation, something between a 4-3-1-2 and a diamond midfield with Bruno Fernandes at its tip and Nemanja Matic holding the fort, bore the hallmarks of Rangnick’s RB Leipzig sides. From the outset it was apparent this was going to be different from United’s modus operandi in big games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Under the old regime, on such occasions, they would usually operate in a relatively low block, coiling up in the hope they would be able to burst forth on the counter. While there were moments of that at Stamford Bridge — particularly a spell in the second half where Chelsea corners looked to be more effective attacking weapons for United than their hosts — there was far greater proactivity in getting the ball back from the outset.

Manchester United pressure Chalobah to pass wide, where they aim to trap Chelsea
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In the first passage of play United look to funnel Chelsea into the right flank, Marcus Rashford closing Trevoh Chalobah down quickly enough that he does not have time to turn inwards and even knock the ball back, let alone try to give it to Thiago Silva behind him. Instead his only real option is the quick pass out wide where two players in red are already bound. From there Reece James has to go back and Chelsea go long, forcing an aerial duel between Victor Lindelof and Timo Werner that the former will always be favorite to win.

Keeping Chelsea out wide was central to United’s plan. They wanted to keep the ball away from Jorginho, who could get the home team into their rhythm and grind away at the defense. “We came here with a plan,” said Carrick. “I kind of knew how Chelsea would play and we wanted to stop the passes through to Jorginho and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.”

Central to this was the pressure that came from Bruno Fernandes. According to fbref no one attempted more pressures without the ball than the Portuguese, who was responsible for almost a third of those applied in the Chelsea third of the pitch. If he was ineffectual with the ball at his feet yesterday, that rather reflected a player who had run himself into the ground in attempting to get it back.

Bruno Fernandes sprints after the ball as Hakim Ziyech plays a pass to Antonio Rudiger
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He was no headless chicken though. In the image above he is sprinting at almost full pelt to try to beat Antonio Rudiger to a nervy Hakim Ziyech pass. When all he can do is force a pass to Thiago Silva, however, he falls back to block off the pass to Jorginho. Throughout this passage he will constantly adjust his position to force the ball away from the Italian.

As Thiago Silva and Rudiger are forced to knock the ball back and forth Fernandes constantly scans for Jorginho’s position
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What might be apparent, however, is that much of United’s best pressing came in those early skirmishes. How effectively they shackled Chelsea’s midfield is up for debate. Jorginho had 81 touches, around two fewer than he averages per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season. The purpose of a high press is to play the game in your opponents’ third of the pitch. Chelsea had more than three times the number of touch in the final third. At half time Callum Hudson-Odoi and Marcos Alonso had had more touches in the United third than the entire visiting team had managed in the Blues’ danger area.

This is the reality of attempting something new against a team that are masters of their craft. Chelsea’s back three could pick holes in far more adept pressing systems than United’s. When put under pressure Rudiger simply ran through the midfield. Alonso offered himself as an impressive aerial target to relieve pressure.

But throughout the game there were at least flashes of a high pressing system. Did Jorginho miscontrol the ball for Sancho’s goal because the No.25 and Rashford were charging at him with such pace? Probably not. Thomas Tuchel suggested he had been blinded by the floodlights instead. But it feels plausible that on other occasions the Italian might have had time to rectify his error because United were not so committed to applying pressure high up the pitch.

Lingard’s pressure forces Mendy into a nervy pass that Fred is able to intercept
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Similarly in the 88th minute the energy of substitute Jesse Lingard forced Edouard Mendy into a pass towards Rudiger that Fred, excellent throughout this game, spotted and stole. Perhaps he already had the headlines ringing through his brain as he went for the extravagant chip that instead ended United’s attack with a whimper. Still, for all that their press looked a little meek and rather too easy for a top team to play through, it nearly won them the game in the dying moments.

Rangnick will surely remind them of that during the coming days.

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