The mood at Manchester United’s training session has been described as “completely flat” as the club enter the final week of Ralf Rangnick’s tenure.
Sources familiar with Carrington say the performance and result of the 4-0 defeat at Brighton came as no surprise given the preparation for the game consisted of disappointing sessions led by coaches Chris Armas and Ewan Sharp under the conducted by Rangnick.
There was moderate-paced small-sided play, standard drills and some runs, but little specific to Graham Potter’s team. The level of coaching has been the subject of debate among players for some time, with sources close to the dressing room describing the standard as “well below” that of predecessors Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna. Rangnick and United would have preferred Carrick and McKenna to stay.
Sharp, in particular, is struggling to cope, according to some of the recipients of instructions. The 30-year-old graduated from North Park University in Chicago with a master’s degree in business administration in 2017 and then worked for three years as an analyst for the New York Red Bulls under Armas, the head coach. He assisted Armas, 49, at Toronto FC before both were sacked following a 7-1 defeat by DC United last November. Sharp worked with Rangnick at Lokomotiv Moscow for a month before joining United.
These backgrounds were deemed by those associated with United to be inadequate to meet the demands and caliber of a player at United. Despite their best efforts, this has in turn undermined authority over a difficult-to-manage squad whose players are notoriously divided on how they should coach.
Rangnick has tried to get a grip on poor performances, hold meetings with experienced players on how to proceed and simplify pressing instructions, but his inability to commit to a system and staff has created uncertainty about each’s performances .
Just one session was spent working on the back-three system at Anfield against a Liverpool side completely drilled in their 4-3-3 and United were torn apart.
A source said: “Every player needs to know their job and everyone else’s, so if someone doesn’t complete a task they will be called out collectively. United don’t have that. Week after week they don’t understand their roles and responsibilities so too many excuses can be found.”
Cristiano Ronaldo’s shrug at Brighton seemed to tell a story.
After that loss, Rangnick gave his players four days off and returned to Carrington on Thursday. Given the circumstances, with United no longer playing in the Champions League this weekend and no game taking place, this can be seen as understandable.
But sources at United are adamant the final game at Crystal Palace is in jeopardy and a result is needed to avoid the potential ignominy of Europa Conference League relegation. West Ham United are three points behind with a game in hand and a vastly superior goal difference. There’s a financial element too, with each location being worth £2.2million.
Some United staff believe time could be spent preparing the squad this week and protecting themselves from an atmosphere where a terrible result has no consequences, even if the plans were made two weeks ago.
Rangnick has regularly given days off, allowing nine out of 13 after the team’s Champions League elimination against Atletico Madrid. He spent some time in Barbados during this break and was a day away from Carrington when the players returned. Those who practiced were annoyed that Rangnick was not present as the exercises were being led by Armas and Sharp.
Technical director Darren Fletcher has often assisted in coaching, trying to bridge any issues that arose, and when the campaign ran into disaster, Rangnick took an approach to explaining his feelings with growing candor in press conferences. This has worked well with the fans but has caused further friction for some in the squad.
Rangnick was John Murtough’s choice as interim when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked, with Armas and Sharp joining although they weren’t first choices, so United’s director of football must hope Erik ten Hag’s appointment goes much better. There are some who think Murtough – who was present in Tottenham’s 3-0 win over Arsenal on Thursday night – could step in and offer more presence in the current dilemmas.
Murtough has turned his attention to the arrival at United of Ten Hag, who flies to Amsterdam on several occasions, most recently on Thursday. He then returned to Britain before appearing in Tottenham’s 3-0 win over Arsenal.
In the Dutch capital, Murtough met Ten Hag, Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren, the latter two of whom will join United as assistant coaches. Negotiations with Van der Gaag are at an advanced stage and nearing completion, while a deal for McClaren is already in the works.
McClaren’s situation has taken a little longer as United wanted clarity on his exact role, having worked as a senior advisor at Derby County. Ten Hag explained McClaren would be deployed at United on the pitch, helping with selection and player development, rather than at managerial level.
Ten Hag worked under McClaren at FC Twente and the pair finished second in the Eredivisie together. Ten Hag left and McClaren won the 2010 title with Alfred Schreuder as his assistant. Schreuder was an integral part of Ten Hag’s team when Ajax reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2019 and was confirmed as the successor to his former boss in Amsterdam this week.
McClaren, 61, is ready to return to United after two decades. He assisted Sir Alex Ferguson between 1999 and 2001 and was part of the treble winning team 23 years ago.
McClaren and Van der Gaag would be the two managers to join Ten Hag and United’s new manager will make further calls once he is on the spot. United believe first-team manager Eric Ramsay is in a very good position to provide support to Ten Hag.
Work continues in the background. One of Murtough’s previous trips to Amsterdam a few weeks ago was done with sports science staff to go over fitness programs and pre-season plans with Ten Hag.
This recent meeting was more about overall strategy than recruitment. United are of course looking to sign players in partnership with Ten Hag, with Frenkie de Jong ticking boxes for both.
It’s also hoped that Ten Hag will get more out of the players he already has at his disposal.
One of them is Marcus Rashford, whose form has fallen this season. Rashford had considered his club future while on the bench under Rangnick but his full focus is now on United.
A bout of bronchitis kept him from taking part in the FA Youth Cup final at Old Trafford, but he recovered to train on Thursday. That evening he was spotted filming a Nike advert at King’s School in Macclesfield in the evening with Ronaldo and Jude Bellingham.
Paul Pogba, meanwhile, was in Carrington on Tuesday and Wednesday to work on his recovery from a calf strain.
Rangnick’s options have been limited by a number of injured players but Ten Hag will be watching the game at Selhurst Park to give those hoping to make a difference under the new manager a chance to make a claim.