Why Rangnick MUST swallow his pride and ditch Man United's formation

Talents of Sancho and Greenwood wasted, defenders caught hopelessly out of position and Ronaldo left frustrated… Why Ralf Rangnick MUST swallow his pride and ditch his 4-2-2-2 formation after Manchester United’s atrocious display in Wolves loss

  • Manchester United were shockingly bad as they went down 1-0 to Wolves
  • Ralf Rangnick thought his side had turned a corner but it’s back to square one
  • It’s evident his favoured 4-2-2-2 formation is unsuitable for United’s players
  • Likes of Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood aren’t as effective in the middle
  • Too much is asked of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw to provide the width
  • System is designed to get best out of Cristiano Ronaldo but complicates things 

Just as Ralf Rangnick thought Manchester United had turned a corner, they crashed headlong into a brick wall.

It transpired that the energetic and clinical performance that overwhelmed Burnley just before the New Year was because they were playing Burnley.

So when they encountered a Wolves side who deploy pace and swift counter-attacks to excellent effect, albeit without necessarily rounding them off with a goal, everything shattered into pieces.

It was an evening to forget for Manchester United as they crashed to a home defeat to Wolves

United’s defenders look dejected as Joao Moutinho finds the net for Wolves’ late winner

It is difficult to recall such a sloppy and slapdash display from a United side. Even in the dying embers of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure earlier this season they didn’t seem to surrender the ball so frequently.

Aside from a five-minute spell in which Bruno Fernandes crashed a shot against the bar not long after coming on, United were dominated by a goal-shy Wolves team who hadn’t won at Old Trafford in 42 years.

It’s clear already that interim manager Ralf Rangnick needs to change from his favoured 4-2-2-2 formation, which isn’t suitable for United’s players

If Ralf Rangnick’s entire footballing philosophy is based on having control, this was seriously worrying.

United had no control whatsoever and this was against a mid-table Wolves team who have scored just 14 times all season. The prospect of encountering anyone half-decent is utterly terrifying for United fans at the moment.

What is clear is that Rangnick will have to swallow his pride and ditch the 4-2-2-2 formation with which he is comfortable but his players evidently are not.

In the Sky Sports studio, Jamie Redknapp correctly concluded that the system ‘doesn’t work’ for United. ‘There was no real identity of how they were trying to play.’

Given the sorry state of the team Rangnick inherited, with cohesion and confidence totally lost, there was certainly a clamour to try something a bit different.

But it’s become apparent that the interim manager would have been better served sticking with the 4-2-3-1 set-up his players were familiar with, at least until he got his feet under the table and worked out on the training ground whether his style was suitable to the players at his disposal.

United fans believed after the 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on December 5, when the team pressed hard and high up the pitch as though imbued with a new energy and optimism, that things would change for the better.

But subsequent sluggish displays against Norwich, Newcastle and now Wolves have taken Rangnick back to square one. It’s clear the system isn’t suitable for United and needs to change.


It was a chaotic evening for Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw, who seem to have won back their places from Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot.

There is a huge burden on these wing-backs to supply all the width in the side, with those further forward playing more narrowly.

Wolves manager Bruno Lage didn’t have to be a genius to figure out that when Wan-Bissaka and Shaw committed forward there would be acres of space to exploit.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka (pictured) and Luke Shaw were left with much to do in defence and attack

His team is blessed with some quick and skilful players, with Daniel Podence and Francisco Trincao causing United issues right from the very first whistle.

They then had the luxury of bringing on the electric but often erratic Adama Traore as United legs tired in the final phase of the match.

It was Traore who delivered the cross after skirting around Shaw in the lead-up to Wolves’ winner, with Phil Jones only able to head out as far as Joao Moutinho, who finished very well indeed.

Shaw challenges for a header with Raul Jimenez as United were swamped by Wolves at times

Unfortunately, United’s full-backs just aren’t suitable to play in this hybrid role, at least without a third central defender acting as an insurance policy when United are caught in possession upfield.

When Chelsea or Manchester City deploy flying wing-backs, they have all this in place. But United were caught out time after time.

They need to return to greater width further up the pitch to reduce this reliance on those who need to concentrate on defensive responsibilities.


Rangnick went with Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood for the second consecutive game in what might be described as the filling layer of his midfield/attack sandwich.

After their showing against Burnley, that was sensible but neither of them saw too much of the ball as Wolves dominated to the point they had 15 first-half shots – a Premier League record at Old Trafford.

Greenwood, however, looked the most likely to make something happen for United on the break and Sancho should have passed left to Cristiano Ronaldo when the pair steamed forward in the opening period.

Naturally wide attackers Jadon Sancho (left) and Mason Greenwood (right, seen after being subbed off) are inhibited by playing in Rangnick’s narrow system

But both were operating through the channels, bound by the narrowness of their new formation which negates their natural inclination to get into space out wide, take on defenders and fire in crosses.

It was understandable that the Old Trafford crowd jeered when Greenwood was taken off for Fernandes in the 60th minute but the way the Portuguese star improved United, albeit temporarily, made it look like a good decision.

Bruno Fernandes (left) struck the crossbar after coming off the bench but that was the closest United came to scoring during a dismal performance

Man United fixtures 

Premier League unless stated   

January 10 Aston Villa (H)

FA Cup third round

January 15 Aston Villa (A)

January 22 West Ham (H)

February 8 Burnley (A) 

February 12 Southampton (H) 

February 20 Leeds United (A) 

Wan-Bissaka’s crossing was better than usual on Monday and twice he almost dropped a delivery onto Cristiano Ronaldo’s head in an excellent scoring position.

But why negate the abilities of Sancho and Greenwood – not to mention Marcus Rashford, who came on later – by asking them to curb their natural instincts?

Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 had its faults but at least it allowed two wide attackers to stretch defences and prevent everyone stepping on each other’s toes.

This was further emphasised when Fernandes was introduced and had an immediate impact on the game – he could be playing in his natural, more effective No 10 role rather than looking like a spare part.


Rangnick understandably wanted to come up with a system that produced the best from United’s star player, Ronaldo.

With Edinson Cavani able to support him in a forward pair and a good natural understanding between them, this looked like a smart move.

But against Wolves United were so sloppy in possession from back to front that the top two weren’t getting anywhere near enough service. You lost count of the number of times they gave possession away.

Rangnick obviously needs to get the best out of Ronaldo to keep United moving forward and any system needs to be designed around him.

Cristiano Ronaldo captained United against Wolves but endured an evening of frustration

You do, however, get the impression that other players in the attack are frightened of getting in his way, ignoring him with a pass or taking the ball off him.

When he gets annoyed and drops back into midfield looking for the ball, it’s a case of everyone getting in each other’s way.

United were drawn to the ball like moths to a flame in the first-half, forgetting they needed to be making runs in behind. Matters did improve after the break and they carried more threat as a result.

Having the captain’s armband against Wolves did instil some collective responsibility in Ronaldo. He didn’t bawl at Sancho for ignoring him in open space during the first-half, for example.

United’s myriad attacking talent, including Fernandes (left) and Ronaldo, couldn’t score

But while pairing Ronaldo and Cavani – combined age 70 – is probably the best solution in attack, it was again clear you’re not going to get much in the way of pressing, at least from the former.

The message hasn’t yet been hammered in that putting opposing defenders under pressure does force mistakes. That first game against Palace, who weren’t given a moment’s peace, was really encouraging but it hasn’t happened since.

Finding a set-up that gets the best out of him is a riddle Rangnick will have to solve quickly.


Returning to that big issue of control, or the lack of it.

Rangnick wants his United team to look after the ball and not be wasteful with it, in the way that the teams of Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola crave possession.

Perhaps it’s because Solskjaer encouraged a more counter-attacking game and the habits have become ingrained but United are still miles off achieving this.

Scott McTominay picks up a yellow card to compound a poor performance on Monday

Instead of gaining an early grip on proceedings, United were immediately swamped by Wolves, who were afforded acres of space to work in.

Fundamental to seizing control of a game is the two-man midfield but Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic just didn’t look up to the job.

McTominay has been in good form and Rangnick clearly appreciates his efforts but he was poor on Monday night and Matic wasn’t able to shoulder the burden alone.

When these two midfielders are also expected to provide cover for the wing-backs when they’re trapped upfield, it’s a heavy workload.

Paul Pogba isn’t far away from a return from injury but it isn’t obvious where he fits in 

Neither can exactly be described as a ball-player, either, meaning United are incapable of playing their way forward.

Maybe Paul Pogba can help when he returns from his hamstring injury but it isn’t immediately obvious where he fits into Rangnick’s plans.

He is unlikely to want to play a defensive midfield role and playing him further forward will mean one of Fernandes, Sancho, Greenwood or Marcus Rashford will have to sit out.

So it all looks like a horrible muddle at the moment and it may prove easier for Rangnick to change formations right away than laboriously try to fit square pegs into round holes.

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