For quite a few clubs at the top end of the Premier League, the third round of the FA Cup this weekend will offer some welcome respite.
It’s been pretty full-on during the festive period, with Covid outbreaks and mounting injury lists only adding to the usual pressure of playing every two or three days.
But for Manchester United, who host Aston Villa on Monday night, a change of competition most definitely will not ease the lengthening list of problems faced by interim manager Ralf Rangnick.
It has been another difficult week for Manchester United’s interim manager Ralf Rangnick
The team put in a dreadful performance in their 1-0 home defeat by Wolves on Monday night
Just as it seemed this ailing team might be heading in the right direction again, a thoroughly dreadful 1-0 defeat to Wolves has been followed by all manner of revelations about the true state of affairs inside the club.
It already seems that Rangnick has conceded defeat in his mission to turn United around before the end of the season following the disasters in the latter part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign.
The German fears he lacks the time and influence to solve United’s myriad problems between now and the end of the season.
And, in all honesty, he may be right. Sportsmail takes a look at the long list of issues Rangnick and United face as we enter the second half of the campaign.
Players not responding to ‘interim’ coach
Rangnick may be an experienced coach but he was always in a position of weakness by the nature of his interim position at Old Trafford.
It seems the players aren’t buying into his ideas and philosophy because they know he’ll be going from the touchline to a behind closed doors advisory role in May.
There is a complete lack of permanence to the current situation, just speculation on who might come in over the summer to rip everything up and start again.
Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo complain during the dismal home defeat to Wolves
It could be Mauricio Pochettino, Erik ten Hag, Brendan Rodgers or someone completely different.
For Rangnick, the mission was to deliver United into the top four and progress as far as possible in the FA Cup and the Champions League while playing some attractive football if at all possible.
It hasn’t taken him too long to realise there are so many deep-lying and longstanding issues at United, he simply doesn’t have the time to tackle them all.
And when the players are reluctant to even listen to his instructions, what’s the point of even getting started?
United appeared to have turned a corner with a good display against Burnley just before new year but the Wolves defeat was a reminder of how far they have fallen back from their rivals
Doubts over his backroom staff
There was some change and some continuity when it came to the backroom staff as Rangnick replaced the sacked Solskjaer in December.
Michael Carrick took charge of three games as a caretaker boss – with some success – but then left the club, while former first-team coach Kieran McKenna is now in charge at Ipswich.
Mike Phelan remained as assistant manager but Rangnick has brought in some of his own trusted personnel too in Chris Armas and Ewan Sharp to coach the team.
But there are already doubts coming from the players over the coaching techniques and calibre of these two.
Rangnick hired Chris Armas (right) but there are already doubts among the players over him
Doubts have been expressed over the calibre of coaches Armas (right) and Ewan Sharp (left)
Armas was sacked twice in the 15 months prior to his arrival by MLS clubs New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC, whereas Sharp followed Rangnick to United from Lokomotiv Moscow.
He also appointed Sascha Lense, the first full-time sports psychologist United have had in 20 years.
Rangnick said it is ‘absolutely logical’ to have a psychologist on the staff at a club to ‘help the players understand that the brain should assist the body, not work against it.’
Sascha Lense, brought in as a psychologist, certainly has his work cut out at Old Trafford
Unfortunately, Lense, Armas and Sharp appear to have their work cut out even getting the players to respond to them, let alone make a positive impact.
With Rangnick often taking a back seat in training – he has cut a rather detached figure since arriving in Manchester – a lot rests on the shoulders of these trusted lieutenants.
Morale at rock bottom
You only have to glance at the body language of United’s players during games – the slumped shoulders, downcast expressions and flailing arms when passes go astray (which against Wolves was nearly every one) – to realise morale is on the floor.
Even senior players are coming out and admitting the mood inside the camp is terrible, with Luke Shaw questioning the togetherness of the side and making a slightly pointed suggestion that Rangnick needs to bring in some fresh ideas.
Former United defender Gary Neville branded them a ‘bunch of whingebags’ after the poor display at Newcastle over Christmas and he’s hit the nail on the head.
United’s players have been described as a ‘bunch of whingebags’ with morale on the floor
With several members of the squad wanting to leave, inconsistent results and performances, and the transient nature of Rangnick’s appointment, any facade that United’s was a happy camp has been shattered.
There are divides within the squad, which is split up into cliques, and frustration among fringe players that Rangnick tends to put out similar line-ups to those Solskjaer did.
With up to half the squad said to be unhappy and senior players speaking openly about this being the worst atmosphere they can remember, there seems little hope of a quick improvement.
In November, Cristiano Ronaldo organised a team-bonding dinner but there were several absentees.
Luke Shaw said he didn’t feel that United’s players ‘were all there together’ during the game
The Portuguese star is well-placed to judge the decline in standards at United from the successful Sir Alex Ferguson era and Sportsmail revealed his shock at how things had gone downhill.
Another factor is that everything was supposed to be very different this season.
Progress under Solskjaer came at a glacial pace sometimes but there’s no doubt he’d moved United on.
Having finished second in the Premier League last season and come within a whisker of winning the Europa League, this was meant to be the season they ended a five-year trophy drought.
The summer acquisitions of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and then Ronaldo made this even more likely. But instead it’s been a complete car crash.
It’s far from certain Man United have moved on at all since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked
Formation is just wrong
The moment Rangnick abandoned his tried and trusted 4-2-2-2 formation midway through then Wolves game and switched to three at the back could well be the moment he realised it simply doesn’t work for United.
You can’t blame Rangnick for sticking with what he knows best after being parachuted in but he should have realised sooner the system doesn’t suit the players at his disposal.
It places too much burden on wing-backs such as Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka to not only provide all the width in the side but also the expected defensive cover.
Wolves got in behind these two time after time on Monday night, allowing them to dominate proceedings and create a bagful of chance.
Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 formation doesn’t get the best out of players such as Jadon Sancho (left) or Mason Greenwood (right), both of which thrive in wide areas
Aaron Wan-Bissaka (pictured) and Luke Shaw were left with much to do in defence and attack
Any opponent with a smidgen of attacking pace can easy bypass the midfield pair, while the likes of Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are just totally wasted playing in a narrow and congested central third rather than spreading wide.
Rangnick thought Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani would be the ideal front two but the evidence of the Wolves game suggested otherwise.
There was no cohesion between anyone, with passes going astray all over the field and attackers making the wrong decisions when they did get into the final third.
In short, it was a shambolic mess.
Cristiano Ronaldo captained United against Wolves but endured an evening of frustration
We may see a change for the Villa game. The sensible option would be to revert to the 4-2-3-1 formation that Solskjaer favoured, for the simple reason that the players are comfortable with it.
It wasn’t always the most effective set-up but it did get results more often than not. But we will see.
Stars don’t fancy pressing game
The central pillar of Rangnick’s football philosophy is control. Control of the ball and tempo of a match equals control of the scoreline.
In order to get control, Rangnick demands his players work with maximum intensity and press opponents as high up the field as possible.
Everyone is expected to press, even the forwards, because mistakes can quite often be forced, leading to goals.
United were carved open by Wolves on Monday night and struggled to control the game
In his first game in interim charge, the 1-0 home win over Crystal Palace, the first 45 minutes were as though United had been remoulded in the image of Rangnick.
They never stopped running, putting Palace’s defenders in all manner of difficulty. Since then, we haven’t seen a gentle squidge let alone an intense press.
The same energy was lacking in the win at Norwich and the risible display at Newcastle.
Against Wolves, a step up in quality, the lack of pressing meant United were sliced open again and again.
Manchester United’s pressing was excellent in Rangnick’s first game in charge against Crystal Palace, when Brazilian midfielder Fred (pictured) scored the winner, but has been lacking since
Now, it wasn’t Rangnick’s fault that training was disrupted by a Covid outbreak just at the crucial moment he should have been hammering home the positives from the Palace performance.
But it’s already evident that most of the players have decided that pressing – something United just didn’t do under Solskjaer – isn’t something they want to add to their game.
Half the squad want to leave!
It used to be gospel that after leaving Manchester United, the only way in your career was down.
Now players cannot wait to get away, with Sportsmail reporting on Thursday that a staggering 17 players are unhappy and an exodus is possible before next season.
Forgotten striker Anthony Martial will go out on loan this month if Sevilla improve their offer and isn’t likely to be missed given the surplus of attacking options.
Likewise Jesse Lingard, who has long since concluded his future lies away from Old Trafford as he warms the bench.
Forgotten striker Anthony Martial is among a number of players who could leave this year
Paul Pogba’s contract also expires in the summer and a renewal is highly unlikely, with Rangnick making clear he doesn’t intend to try and convince the French midfielder to stay.
Cavani and Juan Mata will be free agents come the summer, while Donny van de Beek, Dean Henderson and Eric Bailly are all open to moves.
Phil Jones made his first United appearance for almost two years against Wolves but may yet leave, while Nemanja Matic, Fred and Diogo Dalot all enter the final year of their contracts in the summer.
Edinson Cavani, who earned Manchester United a point away at Newcastle, has much still to offer but is likely to leave in the summer when his contract at Old Trafford expires
MANCHESTER UNITED NEXT SIX FIXTURES
Premier League unless stated
Monday Aston Villa (H)
FA Cup third round
January 15 Aston Villa (A)
January 22 West Ham (H)
February 8 Burnley (A)
February 12 Southampton (H)
February 20 Leeds United (A)
So whoever comes in as United’s new manager in the summer could face a complete squad rebuild.
And so the vicious cycle of backing a manager with tens of millions of pounds to make their mark on the team begins all over again.
Fixtures will only get tougher
What’s alarming is that Rangnick really did have a soft-landing into the job.
Palace were 11th in the table when United faced them, Norwich 20th, Newcastle 19th, Burnley 18th and Wolves 8th. The two postponed games were against 10th placed Brentford and 13th place Brighton. There was also a dead rubber Champions League game against Young Boys.
While it’s true Villa have slumped from their initial Steven Gerrard bounce, they still represent a tougher proposition than most of Rangnick’s opponents to date. A league fixture against them follows hot on the heels of the Cup tie.
Games with Man City, Tottenham,, Liverpool and Leicester loom on the horizon in March and April, while there’s the small matter of a Champions League last-16 meeting with Atletico Madrid.
If United are being dominated at home by Wolves to the extend their visitors had 19 shots to United’s nine and eight corners to three, it really doesn’t bode well for when Rangnick’s team encounter someone truly decent.