Impressive. Most impressive. After three straight defeats and losing their hold on fourth place, the outlook was grim on Arsenal surviving their battle at Stamford Bridge. A wild first half eventually gave way to a pivotal 4-2 win for the Gunners as the young attack flourished. And while he may not be at Arsenal next season, let’s all appreciate the wonderful night Eddie Nketiah had. It’s a quick turnaround now, but the Emirates should be quite the scene on Saturday for the clash against Manchester United.
Like Arsenal, Manchester United’s had a mixed bag of results over the past six weeks. United beat Tottenham before being eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid. A loss against Everton, a Ronaldo hat-trick to take three points off Norwich City, and then getting smashed by Liverpool on Tuesday. We aren’t sure which Manchester United Arsenal will face at the weekend, but we know both sides desperately need the three points.
Ahead of the match, we chatted with Pauly Kwestel from SB Nation’s The Busby Babe once again. If you are curious and would like to revisit where things stood the last time these two met in the Premier League, check out our Q&A with Pauly back in late November - Part 1 & Part 2.
TSF: It’s been a start-stop race for fourth place in recent weeks from the four clubs still in contention. How do you assess United’s chance of grabbing fourth and is this weekend’s match a must-win to stay in the conversation?
TBB: I understand how math works but this top four race has me questioning everything I know about math. United win one match once every blue moon and suddenly they’re vaulted into like fifth place just a few points off fourth? How? Manchester United are not in the top four race.
TSF: When we last spoke Ralf Rangnick had been announced but was not in charge yet. Now five months later how do you assess his time at United so far and what is your projection for his involvement next year?
TBB: Rangnick got off to a hot start but faded very very quickly. His first match against Crystal Palace was loads of fun. United just don’t have the players to be able to play 90 minutes (or even 60 minutes) of Rangnick ball and he realized that pretty quickly.
He was going to need to find another way and over time, he did manage to re-shape the team, building it entirely around Cristiano Ronaldo. That creates some problems. United will only go as far as Ronaldo takes them, so when he hit a cold stream in January/February, United weren’t winning. Given this is how they’re now set up and training, if Ronaldo is suddenly unavailable, they don’t really have a plan B.
The other unintended issue is, Ralf Rangnick doesn’t exactly have the greatest managerial resume. Part of the reason you hired him is because what he does have is a clear cut style and identity, essentially the opposite of what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was perceived to be. The players can buy in to that style and identity, but when Rangnick bailed on his own style after just a few games, what exactly is Rangnick now?
Rangnick has never really done things differently so now he’s just figuring it out like everyone else. That doesn’t inspire confidence and once he ditched his style, I don’t think the players ever fully bought in.
This was a team that last season found themselves in plenty of games where the scores were level with 25-30 minutes left. They never panicked, they never lost their way. They just kept playing their game confident that they’re chances would come and they often did. Under Rangnick, United have gone 1-0 up plenty of times only to concede an equalizer. Every time that happens - or if 65 minutes have gone by and the score is still 0-0 - their heads have dropped. They start pressing and panicking and just launching balls forward. They don’t look like a team that’s done this before. They don’t look like a team that believes if they just play their game their chances will come. It’s hard to tell if that’s because they no longer know what “their game” is or if they just don’t trust it.
TSF: Given the state of the current squad, the new manager coming in, and Rangnick looking to evaluate the entire scope of operations, do you expect a big exodus of players this summer, and if so, who?
TBB: Yes, but not as big as it’s being made out to be. Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, and Paul Pogba(?) are gone. I’d expect on loan players Brandon Williams and Axel Tuanzebe to follow them out the door. Phil Jones and Eric Bailly of course want to leave because they’re not playing but who knows if anyone wants Phil Jones and I can’t believe anything on Bailly because he just signed a contract last summer despite not being happy with his playing time.
Anthony Martial will want to leave. He took a pay cut to join Sevilla on loan in January suggesting he’s actually willing to do what it takes to get a move, though I could see a scenario where Erik Ten Hag possibly wants him to stay and tries to convince him. I also have a sneaky suspicion that if the club receives any kind of offer for Donny van de Beek Ten Hag would sign off on his departure. I don’t think that offer is coming though.
All season long there have been rumors that Ronaldo will look to leave if United don’t qualify for the Champions League and frankly those aren’t hard to believe. However those rumors have dried up since the March international break when the “Ronaldo remains committed to Manchester United no matter what” stories came out. They were so transparent you could almost see an exasperated Jorge Mendes hanging up his phone and just nodding his head at Ronaldo, who lets out a sigh as he’s resigned to the fact that no other club is going to come along and bail him out of this situation. That just leaves the players who actually get playing time and frankly, I don’t see many of them leaving. Most of them aren’t as bad as they’re being made out to be. Some of them are a lot worse (looking at a certain central midfielder and backup leftback). A poor run of form and horrific team structure is making things out to be much worse than they actually are. Obviously the big name is Harry Maguire, but he’s a player that very much fits the profile for how Ten Hag wants to play.
But really what it comes down to is, who’s buying these guys? If they’re under contract United are going to want fees for them and how many clubs are lining up to pay a transfer fee and then match the high wages these guys are already on? I personally believe Aaron Wan-Bissaka should go - but Wan-Bissaka is one of the most confident players in his own ability out there. Like Nicklas Bendtner levels of confidence. He’s not going to take a pay cut to go somewhere else even if you tell him he’s not first choice. He’s the type of person who will bet on himself, stick around, and fight to try and win his place back. And since he’s under contract, there’s nothing United could do if he chooses to do that (other than buy him out). I don’t see him being the only one to take that route, but I also don’t see many clubs lining up to sign United’s players and even give them an avenue to leave.
TSF: Specifically on Marcus Rashford, it’s been a tough season for him, but still just 23 there is loads of potential to unlock. Do you believe he will be a part of United’s restructuring and find his form again or will he be sold this summer?
TBB: I love Marcus Rashford. Over the past year I’ve done not one but two deep dives micro-analyzing just about every second Rashford has played over the past two seasons so I’m pretty confident in my assessment of him. I think the general public has a big misperception regarding age in football. We think 22-23 is still young and developing. For the most part, it’s not. There’s mountains of data out there that now tell us pretty definitively that attacking players tend to peak around the age of 26 - earlier than the common perception.
But it’s not so much about your age as opposed to how many years of senior football you’re playing. You have about eight years before you peak, and since most of the top players these days break in at 18, that peak comes at 26. Some players are late bloomers and break in at 21 and are therefore good until they’re 29-30. We also know that for players who become superstars, you have about three years to make “The Leap.” If it doesn’t happen by year three, it’s probably not going to happen.
Marcus Rashford is now in his sixth year of senior football (and fifth full season). Up until this year, his production has been remarkably consistent - albeit not exactly in a good way. As much as it pains me to say this, this is basically who Marcus Rashford is. He’s probably not getting much better.
Rashford is an extremely dangerous player when playing on the counter attack but never really developed the other parts of his game. He isn’t as bad as he’s playing this season - that’s partially due to lack of confidence and partially due to this team’s style not suiting his skillset - so he’s not going to get sold this summer but I’m not entirely convinced of his long term future at Old Trafford.
TSF: Can you give us a young player who has been on the periphery this season due to United’s squad depth that you believe could be a contributor next season?
TBB: James Garner on loan this season at Nottingham Forest but he shouldn’t be. If Scott McTominay is getting minutes over Garner next season something is seriously wrong.
Thanks to Pauly and The Busby Babe, check back in tomorrow for part two of this Q&A where he discusses United’s summer transfer needs, how long Erik ten Hag needs to reshape the club, Paul Pogba’s future, and a prediction for Saturday’s match.