The mess surrounding Anthony Martial sums up this drifting Manchester United... they have a POWERLESS interim boss in Ralf Rangnick, the players are in revolt, and they are struggling to make the top four
Few things shine a light on fundamental problems at a club quite like a manager accusing a player of being unwilling to take part in a game.
When he was asked why Anthony Martial was not in the Manchester United squad for the clash with Aston Villa, Ralf Rangnick could have calmed the situation by alluding to an injury or another excuse that would have justified Martial’s absence.
Instead, Rangnick chose to call out his forward in public. ‘He didn’t want to be in the squad,’ said the German. ‘That is why he did not travel.’
‘I will never refuse to play a match for Man United,’ replied Martial on his Instagram account.
‘I’ve been here for seven years and I have never disrespected and will never disrespect the club and the fans.’
Martial wants to leave Old Trafford and there is interest from Sevilla, though the clubs are some way from reaching an agreement.
Rangnick is an experienced coach and must have known he was taking a risk with his choice of words.
By saying Martial is not prepared to play for United, he weakens his club’s position in negotiations.
Because, surprising as it may sound, it is relatively normal for wantaway players to worry about putting their move in danger by picking up an injury. It is just that most of the time a compromise is reached that does not involve their manager telling the world about it.
Yet this is Manchester United in 2022. A club where a 2-0 lead with 13 minutes remaining against a club in the bottom half of the table turns into a 2-2 draw.
A club where Cristiano Ronaldo missed this game through injury after questioning the attitude and mentality of his team-mates.
A club where managers as successful as Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho fail to mount a serious title challenge.
A club where they say ‘No thanks’ to Antonio Conte, demonstrably one of the best bosses in the modern game, in favour of the temporary appointment of Rangnick, who had never worked in English football and had not managed anywhere for more than two years.
No wonder they looked so fragile when Steven Gerrard’s team started to attack them in the final 15 minutes.
No wonder they are seventh in the table, 24 points behind leaders Manchester City. To think this was the season when, with Ronaldo back and Raphael Varane to shore up the defence, United were finally supposed to go toe to toe with Pep Guardiola’s champions.
Right now, even a top-four finish looks a tall order. Because until United have a full-time leader it is hard to see how they make the fundamental improvements they need. The players know that at the end of the season, Rangnick will move into his consultancy role and a new man will replace him. They know that very soon, it will not be Rangnick but Erik ten Hag, Mauricio Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers or another candidate who will shape their United careers. At the moment, they are simply drifting.
Rangnick knows this too and perhaps this is why he has gone on the offensive recently, calling on his players to ‘behave in a professional way’ before refusing to make excuses for Martial.
It felt like an attempt to establish his authority as United approach a run of matches that may determine the direction of their campaign.
After their rearranged match at Brentford on Wednesday, Rangnick’s team face West Ham at home on Saturday before taking on Middlesbrough in the FA Cup and then Burnley, Southampton and Leeds in the league.
By the time United take on a vulnerable-looking Atletico Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League, Rangnick will know whether his approach is paying off. If he is to succeed, United will have to learn to manage leads better than they did against Villa. Emiliano Martinez let Fernandes’ shot squirm through his arms to give the visitors an early lead, before the Portuguese scored his second early in the second half after more poor defending.
But Philippe Coutinho was given his Villa debut as a second-half substitute and promptly turned the game by setting up the first goal for Jacob Ramsey and scoring the equaliser himself.
‘I’m not happy at all,’ said Fernandes. ‘The performance was better than the result, for sure. We controlled the game better than we have before and we deserved more.
‘We got our chances and we could have scored again after the second goal. The shot was not good, the pass was not good, the run or whatever was not working.
‘Everyone is happy to score but I prefer to win. Today my goals don’t mean anything because we got one point and wanted three.’