Manchester United became the first English Premier League club to exit the Champions League after their loss to Atlético Madrid at Old Trafford.
Atlético Madrid does not have the reputation for being as good as they used to be. The peak Atlético might have been back when they knocked Bayern Munich out of the Champions league in 2016.
This makes sense considering that key players such as Fernando Torres, Gabi, and Juanfran have all left the team since then. Atlético even loaned Saúl to Chelsea for this season. Although Antoine Griezmann has returned to Atlético on loan, he has not played as well as he did in 2016.
Manchester United over the two legs
Manchester United was glad that they returned to Old Trafford with a 1-1 stalemate first leg in Madrid. Although they kept more possession, they created very few chances.
They came out flat-footed and uninspired. It seemed that United didn’t expect a challenge. It took João Félix less than 10 minutes to take the lead.
In the second leg, United looked like a completely different team. They created chance after chance and looked like they could score at any moment.
This begs the question: why didn’t Manchester win?
I am not going to solely blame Ralf Rangnick, but I believe he was the biggest influence in United’s loss. Let me tell you why.
At the beginning of the season, I wrote an article about Paul Pogba’s struggles at Old Trafford. In that article, I explain how some of that blame goes to Ole Gunnar Solskjær – the same reasoning applies to this situation — because Rangnick uses similar tactics.
"Another reason for Pogba’s struggle at Manchester is the tactics. Manchester United fans, rightfully so, give Pogba a hard time about his low defensive work rate.France has N’Golo Kanté and Corentin Tolisso to take care of defensive responsibilities, so Pogba exerts little effort on defending. This, in return, allows Pogba to have more time creating and scoring. France does a good job at hiding Pogba’s weaknesses and showing his strengths.Ole Gunnar Solskjær uses Pogba differently; Bruno is able to create chances while Pogba has more defensive responsibilities."
This was an obvious problem during the first leg. While Pogba is limited on how he could help offensively, Atlético took advantage of United not having a defensive midfielder. This allowed Atlético to create chances more easily.
In the first half of the second leg, most of United’s chances came from Ronaldo and Telles’ partnership of the left side. In the second half, Rangnick subbed in Rashford and moved Ronaldo to a more central role.
Later in the game, Rangnick subbed off Fred. This move was incomprehensible considering that Fred was the midfielder who was creating the most opportunities. Fred played a key part in distributing the ball to wingers in build-up play.
Hard to ignore the calls made by Rangnick
It is hard to look at these decisions and not think that he made the wrong call. Rangnick has been disappointing in the Premier League as well. Manchester is currently in 5th place, 1 point behind Arsenal – but Arsenal has 3 games in hand.
If you compare the teams on paper, Manchester has much more talent. The club is spending a lot of money on bringing in top players, but the team can’t produce results.
I believe that this game was a microcosm of United’s season. The interim manager has failed to optimize the squad he had.
As the season is getting closer to finishing, their focus is qualifying for next year’s Champions League. It will be interesting to see how the club addresses the manager problem this summer.