Control. It’s been the buzzword since Ralf Rangnick was appointed by Manchester United, and in that sense this was a very encouraging start to his stint as interim manager.
‘If you want to win a football match, you have to control it, so the aim right now is to help the team control games more,’ Rangnick wrote in his first programme notes before beating Crystal Palace on Sunday. ‘Finding a way to win this first game is my only focus.’
And find it, he did, even though United weren’t in total control and it took 77 minutes for Fred to emerge as the unlikely hero against obdurate opponents.
Rangnick will settle for this – certainly after just one rainswept training session since taking the reins from caretaker Michael Carrick – and the signs were there that he can make a significant difference.
Much like his players on the pitch, Ralf Rangnick looked in control on the touchline on Sunday
As introductions go, it was of the more subdued variety as Rangnick emerged from the tunnel shortly before kick-off and made his way quietly to the technical area where he stayed for most of the game.
When he got there, Rangnick turned and offered a gentle nod to the main stand at Old Trafford where United luminaries Sir Alex Ferguson, Denis Law and Wayne Rooney were sitting, but there was certainly no great fanfare for the German.
At one stage before half-time, he rushed off the pitch to retrieve the ball so United could restart play as quickly as possible, in stark contrast to Palace boss Patrick Vieira who seemed more interested in starting a chat with Diogo Dalot when he got hold of the ball two minutes later.
Rangnick could not contain his excitement when his side found the breakthrough late on
Indeed, Rangnick displayed little emotion until 13 minutes from time when Fred’s sumptuous finish brought a clenched fist celebration.
At full-time he raised his arms in the air and shook hands with United’s technical director Darren Fletcher before congratulating his players and reciprocating the applause from supporters as he headed back down the tunnel.
So how much of an impact could the godfather of gegenpressing make in the short time available to him?
Well, inside four minutes Bruno Fernandes rushed in to make an interception to set up a chance for Marcus Rashford and the crowd roared again soon afterwards when Cristiano Ronaldo closed down Marc Guehi and Scott McTominay threw himself at Tyrick Mitchell.
Bruno Fernandes set the tone by putting Crystal Palace’s players under pressure early on
It couldn’t last, of course. It would have been asking too much of Rangnick or his players to swarm around their opponents like Liverpool or Manchester City after such a short time together.
But Palace were pinned back in the early stages and there was clearly a desire to assume control of the game, as 61 per cent possession would suggest. This is what United fans are used to from their team at Old Trafford.
They didn’t have it all their own way and Palace pressed for an equaliser towards the end. But it was notable that Ronaldo was back in his own box to head clear from a free kick in the dying seconds, and was still chasing down substitute Michael Olise just before referee Craig Pawson blew the final whistle.
Rangnick was clearly determined to get on the front foot, and the only disappointment is that United had to wait so long for a goal.
He opted for a 4-2-2-2 formation that gave full-backs Diogo Dalot – preferred to Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right – and Alex Telles to get forward as much as possible.
Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes had freedom behind Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford, with Sancho encouraged to run more directly at the opposition more than we have seen since his £73m from Borussia Dortmund.
It led to a string of half chances for Ronaldo, Fernandes, McTominay and Dalot in the first half before Telles clipped the bar with a free-kick in the second.
Fred celebrates with his team-mates after curling home the winning goal with his weaker foot
Fred continued to get forward more, as he did during Carrick’s three games in charge. But whereas he couldn’t execute a chip against Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy a week earlier, this time he got the technique spot on to beat Vicente Guaita.
The assist went to Mason Greenwood after Rangnick turned to the young England striker and teenager Anthony Elanga to try and break the deadlock. It worked.
The other advantage of playing the game so far up the pitch and dominating possession meant United came under very little pressure for the majority of the match.
A team that had conceded 24 goals in the first 14 Premier League games of the season simply couldn’t continue in the same vein, and this was only a third clean sheet of the season in the league.
David de Gea was clearly pleased to pick up all three points, and he hardly had a save to make
David de Gea faced just two shots on target and ironically Palace’s best chance – a glaring miss from Jordan Ayew after James Tomkins had headed across goal from a corner – came just moments before Fred scored the decisive goal.
A Palace side that had struggled to get out of their own half for long periods threw caution to the wind after that and threatened late on but United deserved their win.
Of course, we have to bear in mind the opposition and the circumstances. This wasn’t Liverpool, Leicester or City who pushed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to the brink of the sack. It wasn’t Chelsea and Arsenal, Carrick’s two opponents in the league.
But Rangnick has his first win. The interim is up and running.