The Manchester United of the past would have left Villa Park on Saturday evening with all three points having weathered a second-half storm to win 2-0. However, this isn’t the Manchester United of the past and, sadly, the Manchester United of the present are plagued with problems that persist regardless of the identity of the manager.
Interim boss Ralf Rangnick admitted that, in hindsight, maybe he should have switched to a back three to give the team more defensive solidity against Aston Villa, as Steven Gerrard’s side dominated after the break to earn a deserved 2-2 draw. However, the German’s in-game management was hardly the only issue on another disappointing evening of Premier League football for United.
Mental fragility and familiar midfield problems contributed towards two more dropped points in the quest to finish in the top four.
Let’s start with the latter. In just under two weeks, the transfer window will shut and, as it stands, United are not close to signing anyone. The club’s stance on the winter window remains the same: it is a difficult time to do business and they will only ever move for summer targets that suddenly become available midway through the season for one reason or another.
History has obviously proven that January signings can have transformative effects on teams. United need only to go back to Bruno Fernandes’ acquisition to see the impact a new addition can have at Old Trafford. And let’s not forget that previous January moves for Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra didn’t turn out too badly either!
But it seems United fans will have to wait to see an arrival in their problem position.
Top targets Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham will not move in the next couple of weeks and while Amadou Haidara, the RB Leipzig midfielder, is a more attainable option in this window, there has yet to be an official approach and sources say incomings remain unlikely.
Then there’s Paul Pogba, out of action since late October.
The France international is back in training after a thigh injury and could return to action next month, but if you look at the manner in which United conceded their goals against Aston Villa, his return is not going to make a big difference.
The 28-year-old’s creativity would be welcomed but United were punished in Birmingham for not having the kind of strong defensive shield that a top-class, deep-lying midfielder provides.
At Villa Park, Nemanja Matic’s pace was a problem and so was Fred’s positioning. The Brazilian was pushing further up the pitch, which helped create Fernandes’ second goal, but contributed to United getting caught out for Villa’s late equaliser. The lack of control in midfield has let United down countless times this season.
While Gerrard had Philippe Coutinho to bring off the bench to turn the game, Rangnick wasn’t in a position to introduce an exciting January signing of his own.
Despite admitting the difficulty of doing business in the January window, Rangnick has earmarked midfield as an area for improvement but, unless those above him change their minds about doing deals in the next couple of weeks, he will have to stick with the same squad to see him through until the end of the season. So, he will have to make the best of the talent at his disposal, which means it is imperative that he solves the mental issue holding United back right now.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted when he was in charge that sometimes the players would panic at the first sign of trouble and, thus, fail to see games out. Rangnick did not agree with the claim that his team panicked after Jacob Ramsey’s goal went in at Villa Park but they were not composed or experienced enough to withstand the inevitable onslaught which followed.
Indeed, just four minutes later, the hosts were level.
It was tough to take, given that it had been United’s best performance of Rangnick’s short tenure up until that point, but it’s clear that the players lack confidence when the going gets tough.
The onus is now on the manager to draw on his motivational skills to restore some belief and mental toughness, as his bosses won’t be looking to the winter window for answers. And Pogba’s return is unlikely to provide any either.