Considering Ralf Rangnick had 16 days and a virtually fully-fit squad available to him to prepare for Manchester United’s trip to Newcastle United on Monday evening, it was far from the final Christmas present he would have wanted to have received.
United, not for the first time this season by any stretch of the imagination, produced a flat, lifeless and disjointed performance against one of the Premier League’s leading contenders to finish bottom of the pile come May, with Edinson Cavani’s second half effort from close range sealing an undeserved point.
Undeserved is exactly what it was. United, up against a side that has won just once in all competitions this season, were awful from minute one; they lacked confidence on the ball, looked fragile defensively and created next to nothing in the attacking third, especially in the first 45 minutes.
Considering Manchester City hit Newcastle for four just over a week ago, it again highlighted the gulf in class between where United are and where they want to be.
The performance, especially in the first half, was, arguably, their worst of the season so far. Yes, worse than what they conjured up against Liverpool. Yes, worse than what they conjured up against City. Yes, worse than what they conjured up against Watford. I could go on further but you get the drift by now.
At least in those games they created opportunities, even if they were few and far between. Against Newcastle, despite boasting a front-four of Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Cristiano Ronaldo, United created nothing prior to the break. Nothing.
When you remember that they were up against a Newcastle side that had conceded 41 goals this season prior to kick-off on Monday evening, it is extremely worrying, not least for Rangnick, who would have expected more from such a gifted and talented quartet of attacking stars against a defensive line as fragile and vulnerable.
However, Rangnick’s decision-making must be questioned. Prior to United’s recent hiatus, which saw their clashes with Brentford and Brighton & Hove Albion postponed due to a Covid-19 outbreak, they had scraped past Norwich City, another one of Newcastle’s rivals in the battle to avoid finishing bottom of the table this season, winning by a goal to nil, courtesy of a Ronaldo penalty.
That evening in Norfolk, United survived no shortage of scares, with Norwich offering David de Gea plenty to keep him busy. At the other end, Rashford and Fernandes failed to impose themselves on the contest, with their performances being blasted by the supporters and heavily criticised by pundits and journalists alike. Had the Brentford game three days later gone ahead, both would have been fortunate to retain their places, with their form continuing to falter.
Against Newcastle, both were lucky to start. Once again, they failed to make any impact what so ever on the contest and could consider themselves extremely fortunate not have been hooked at half time, with Greenwood instead the victim of Rangnick’s shift in approach.
Nevertheless, Rashford’s place against Burnley on Thursday evening has to be at risk. Fernandes, on the other hand, will miss out against the Clarets through suspension after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season at St James’ Park.
But even if he had avoided a fifth caution of the campaign against Newcastle his place against Burnley ought to have been at risk. Despite his brilliance and individual excellence when at the top of his game, Fernandes has been a passenger in recent weeks. His performances have not been good enough to earn himself an automatic starting berth, likewise Rashford’s.
Whilst there is no disputing just how talented they both are, the fact of the matter is that those talents are not coming to the fore right now, and haven’t been for quite some time.
United, in their current position, cannot afford to be carrying anyone who isn’t performing to the maximum of their ability, regardless of their status at the club or the name on the back of their shirt. They have to earn the right to play.
With that in mind, Rangnick now needs to show the ruthless side to his management style and make the decisions that former United chief Ole Gunnar Solskjaer failed to, in the sense that under-performing players cannot be rewarded week after week for failing to live up to the billing.
Fernandes has been worked into the ground this season and never given a rest, potentially explaining why his form has fallen off a cliff in recent weeks.
Solskjaer, too, often stuck by his favourites, such as Fred and Scott McTominay, even though they were faltering and Donny van de Beek was waiting in the wings, just as he still is. Jadon Sancho was also often overlooked when others ahead of him in the pecking order were underperforming.
The upcoming clashes with Burnley and Wolverhampton Wanderers will see Rangnick make changes, that there is no doubt about. But it is the manner of the changes that will gauge what kind of manager he proves to be.
Rangnick entered Old Trafford to give United a much-needed lift, victories and a new identity. If he is not getting those by continuing to pick household names, he needs to be ruthless, make alterations and give those chomping at the bit to get into his plans that exact opportunity.