Ralf Rangnick was accustomed to a winter break before he came to England. In unwanted fashion, he has had one in his first few weeks at Old Trafford - when Manchester United visit Newcastle on Monday, it will be their first game for 16 days.
Rewind a month and a 16-day spell covered the thrashing by Watford, the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Carrick’s eventful caretaker reign - complete with dropping first Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo - Carrick’s departure from the club, Rangnick’s appointment and his debut win.
Now, with Covid causing the postponements of the Brentford and Brighton fixtures, United have been out of action. It means Rangnick has a second chance to kickstart the new regime. His first three games offered some encouragement but felt inconclusive: there were positives to be derived from the victory over Crystal Palace and the switch to 4-2-2-2, fewer from a weakened team’s subsequent draw with Young Boys of Bern and the underwhelming win at Norwich.
But Rangnick is unbeaten. United have kept as many clean sheets this season under him as under Solskjaer. They have a run of games that offer a chance to bounce back into the top four. And, after they ran out of fit footballers, their interim manager has the luxury of choice now.
United were down to eight outfield players and three goalkeepers at one stage. While everyone except Paul Pogba is available again, selection could be determined by how much some have recovered from coronavirus, though Rangnick reported most only had weak symptoms.
But Edinson Cavani and Raphael Varane are back in contention. Cavani has been marginalised since Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival but combined brilliantly with his fellow veteran when Solskjaer played a strike duo and got United’s best result of the season, the 3-0 win at Tottenham. Now Rangnick has a system that includes two centre-forwards. It could suit the Uruguayan while Anthony Martial’s wish for a January move makes him less likely to play.
Both United’s defensive and winning records are better with Varane, who was sidelined for the shambolic showings against Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City and Watford. Harry Maguire’s form has been wretched this season and while the captain was an automatic choice for Solskjaer, it will be intriguing if Rangnick instead pairs Varane with Victor Lindelof.
As Solskjaer’s reign unravelled and as United’s defending got worse, the Norwegian nevertheless seemed even more convinced about his preferred back four. For different reasons, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are yet to feature in the league under Rangnick. Now it may be clear if Solskjaer’s first-choice full-backs assume the same status in the new regime. Certainly Wan-Bissaka’s limitations on the ball mean he is far from a perfect fit for Rangnick, who wants attacking full-backs. Diogo Dalot may be preferred again.
Time on the training ground may have assumed an importance. A mid-season appointment of a manager like Rangnick poses challenges about implementing a pressing game. United showed more aptitude to win the ball back higher up the pitch against Palace – even Ronaldo, often a passenger off the ball, made 11 attempts to press – but they were then lacklustre at Norwich. Perhaps their efforts will be coordinated and quicker now.
There is also a question if players will be better attuned to new roles; in particular those as the two No. 10s, but with wider duties as well. Bruno Fernandes gave the ball away 27 times at Carrow Road.
Jadon Sancho, who had been one of the beneficiaries of Solskjaer’s departure, disappointed then and was taken off. That United’s league goals under Rangnick are a freakish long-range strike by Fred and a Ronaldo penalty shows they have to find a way to score.
Newcastle ought to offer an ideal opportunity, as well as a comparison. Their last three games were against Leicester, Liverpool and City and they conceded 11 goals. Rewind to September and Solskjaer’s United got four, Ronaldo scoring twice on his second debut for the club. It proved a false dawn for the Norwegian, who only won two more league games.
It was a deceptive day, suggesting it was easy to accommodate all United’s attacking talents to devastating effect. Then Solskjaer’s United hinted they may be title challengers. Now Rangnick’s team have the lesser target of clambering back into the top four.