As expected, Arsenal dominated possession at home against Newcastle but struggled to break down their defense in the first half. Bukayo Saka’s lovely finish broke the deadline, but the moment of the match was surely Gabriel Martinelli’s beautiful take on the volley from over his shoulder — his first goal of the season. The Gunners now have eight matches over December to really secure their place in the chase for the Champions League positions. Up first, is a trip to Old Trafford, fresh off a point against Chelsea, and with a new manager arriving on the scene.
On form, over the last eight matches, Arsenal sits on 17 points tied for second and just two behind Manchester City. Meanwhile, United has just five points ahead of Newcastle by a single point (thus the manager change). At Old Trafford this season, United have collected seven points from six home matches, with Arsenal replicating that total in their road matches. United’s new manager could throw form out the window on Thursday, but it’s Arsenal's next chance to prove they can win a big road contest.
TSF: Like our last opponent (Newcastle), Manchester United has just as much going on off the pitch as it does on it. Does it feel a bit surreal to see the club sitting in 8th place and with a new manager after starting the season off with four wins and a draw from the first five league matches?
TBB: Wish I could say yes, but unfortunately, the answer is not in the slightest. There was a lot of promise coming into the season but it all faded away when the club decided to throw their plan out the window and sign Ronaldo. I put out a long thread on the morning of August 27th asking exactly how Ronaldo fits into the current team as well as the long-term plan and the answer always was “he doesn’t.”
This United team were built on the back of everyone working off the ball and a very fluid front 3-4 in attack. Ronaldo is none of those things, but his stature demands that he’s in the team every week. United haven’t helped themselves by flanking him with players that don’t suit his style - and he doesn’t suit theirs. I didn’t think it would get this bad this quickly, but it was always obvious this was going to happen as he upset the balance of this team.
TSF: Ralf Rangnick has now officially taken over for Ole Gunnar Solskjær as interim manager. Is he expected to take charge of the match against Arsenal and what are your initial impressions of what he might bring to the club?
TBB: He won’t be in charge against Arsenal and he shouldn’t be. Hasn’t been in training all week so what exactly would he do if he was in charge? If you do any rudimental research on Ragnick you’ll see two things. One is obviously the ‘father of gegenpressing’ thing. Most of it is actually that. But then you’ll also see some stuff about how he’s not rigid and is very adaptable. So in that case, what will he bring because some of the higher-profile players in this team very much don’t fit a pressing style? Will he drop them? Will he change his style to suit them? How will that work?
The other question I have is about the fitness levels of this team. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer instilled a high pressing style when he took over from Jose Mourinho in 2018-19 and if you remember, the team completely burned out by March and crawled over the finish line. That team was in terrible shape because they were a Mourinho team, this team may not have pressed well but Ole still cared very much about their fitness levels so they should be in better shape, but then again most of these guys missed preseason. This is definitely something to keep an eye on.
TSF: Domestically the season has been rough thus far, with five losses in the last eight Premier League matches, and being knocked out of the League Cup. However, United top their Champions League group and have already qualified for the knockout rounds. What do you attribute that difference in results to - the opponents, getting up for the Champions League, or just a series of Ronaldo moments?
TBB: A combination of all those things? United benefit from not having a particularly strong group in Europe. Villarreal are 12th in La Liga and while Atalanta are 4th in Serie A, they wouldn’t be anywhere near that high in the Premier League. Domestically United’s problems begin from the fact that they never addressed their biggest problem - they have no midfield. They got by using smoke and mirrors last season but at this point, everyone has figured out Fred and McTominay. If you stay organized they’re not going to be able to break you down, and given United aren’t getting the same kind of pressure from the front, those two aren’t as protected defensively as they’d been in the past.
There’s also the Ronaldo factor. He’s a narcissist who cares first and foremost about himself and his records. Legacy wise he doesn’t have much to play for domestically where United are definitely not winning the title but in Europe - that’s where he’s still setting records and you can tell he comes alive in these Champions League matches in ways that he just doesn’t domestically. That and European matches are much easier for a 36-year-old striker, whereas the Premier League is a much more difficult league for older strikers and it’s not a big surprise that he’s finding it difficult.
TSF: Over the summer the club added Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane, both seen as big and positive moves. Before Cristiano was announced how did you rate United’s summer business and the squad at that point?
TBB: A solid B, maybe a B+. Similar to Bruno Fernandes, United had a hole on the right side of the pitch that Jadon Sancho fit perfectly. That was the #1 priority and United addressed it quickly. Raphael Varane is a different story. There’s no denying he’s a world-class centerback that anyone would want in their team. Yet his signing was odd/unique in that he certainly improved United’s back four but didn’t really make the team any better. United’s defense last year wasn’t that bad, especially when they had their first choice back four in there. They were undone by bad luck and set pieces.
Varane pushing Lindelof down to third choice definitely gives them more depth, but if you have limited funds, it would have been much better to prioritize a midfielder rather than a centerback, a good midfield that protects your back four would naturally improve your defense (and improve your attack). As we’ve seen, Varane has been good but United’s defense has only gotten worse because of *gestures at everything.* When the terms of the Varane deal were made public - £34 million spread out over a number of years - it seemed like this was a great deal that left room for more signings. But very quickly after that, it came out that there was no more money left, and unless some of United’s unsellable deadwood left, there wouldn’t be any more incomings. That immediately downgraded the deal as United failed to address their biggest need, leaving them shorthanded for another season.
TSF: United has a surplus of talented, known players. Could we see the likes of Donny van de Beek, Edinson Cavani, Eric Bailly, or Dean Henderson leave this winter, even on loans? Or could these players see more playing time under Rangnick?
TBB: Donny van de Beek isn’t going anywhere and will likely see more game time. Dean Henderson got extremely unlucky in that he would have started the season #1 but got COVID before United’s first game. David de Gea is having a vintage de Gea season but United would probably be better off with Henderson in net. Hopefully, he doesn’t leave. Edinson Cavani was another victim of the Ronaldo signing after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer begged him to renew his contract last spring. This was always going to be his last season at Old Trafford and I don’t see him leaving midway through. He’s also been injured most of the campaign which has been a recurring theme for the last two years. Eric Bailly is so bad on the ball that on Sunday, Chelsea straight up didn’t press him to the point where the commentator even said “it doesn’t look like Chelsea are the least bit bothered when Bailly has the ball.” If he wants to leave so be it, but I have no sympathy for him since no one forced him to sign a new contract last summer when it was well known that United were looking to sign another CB.
Check back later this evening for Part 2 of this discussion with Pauly Kwestel from The Busby Babe.