Manchester United have little margin for error in nine-game Premier League rescue mission

Rangnick's side lack momentum of rivals and look like outsiders in the top-four race ahead of their game with Leicester

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A couple of years ago, Manchester United completed a salvage operation against Leicester. Victory at the King Power Stadium on the final day of the season meant Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side qualified for the Champions League and Brendan Rodgers’ side, who had been 14 points ahead of them with 14 games to go, did not.

Now the scenario is different, and not merely because Leicester are 14 points behind United. The European competition they are focused on now is the Conference League. United may only been four points adrift of Arsenal and one behind Tottenham but they feel outsiders in the top-four race, and not merely because the Gunners have a game in hand.

Their last nine games include Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Only four of the nine are at Old Trafford. They lack the momentum their immediate rivals have acquired. Since January they have played 10 matches in all competitions and triumphed in just three. They have been held by Watford and Burnley. While their peers are winning, Ralf Rangnick has the highest percentage of draws of any Manchester United manager.

The broader issue goes beyond scorelines. There is little in United’s performances to suggest they are capable of going on the kind of run that, when they have precious little margin for error, would bring a minimum of 20 points and perhaps as many as 24.

Once again, they can rue events earlier in the season. Including those at the King Power Stadium, where a 4-2 defeat was perhaps the first definitive sign Solskjaer’s United were fundamentally broken. It was the first of four chastening setbacks in five weeks, with losses to Liverpool, Manchester City and eventually Watford finally finishing off the Norwegian.

That reunion with Leicester was particularly harrowing for Harry Maguire. It set the tone for much of his season. Booed by the fans who used to celebrate him, he was culpable to differing degrees for three goals. And yet he was also victim of Solskjaer’s excessive faith in him, rushed back when Raphael Varane was absent and he clearly wasn’t fit. Solskjaer seemed to believe that Maguire, who he fast-tracked to the captaincy, was a superman. Instead, he became a common denominator in calamities.

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His last outing in a United shirt ended when fans cheered as he was substituted in the defeat to Atletico Madrid. Some booed before England’s win over Ivory Coast, drawing condemnation from Gareth Southgate and many of his international teammates. Maguire’s form for his country has usually been terrific, even when he has struggled at club level. He has become a convenient punchbag.

A status as the world’s most expensive defender has scarcely helped him. Leicester could rationalise that they made a £63 million profit on the player who became the £80m man. Even when he was performing better for United, Leicester could feel they got the better of the deal: that £63m more than paid for Maguire’s former sidekick Jonny Evans, his successor Caglar Soyuncu and the prodigy Wesley Fofana. However, in a year where Evans and Fofana have invariably been injured and Soyuncu has underperformed, defensive problems have not been confined to Maguire or United.

But United’s problems command more attention. Elimination from the Champions League, courtesy of Atletico, leaves them with a nine-game rescue job. It will be the last nine of Rangnick’s time in charge, almost certainly the last nine as a United player for Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, maybe even the last nine for Marcus Rashford. They are nine games to prevent their season from being certified as a complete failure for a club who dreamt of so much more.

Updated: April 01, 2022, 3:53 AM
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