The Ralf Rangnick interregnum at Manchester United began in ideal fashion Sunday, a stunning late strike by Fred earning the interim manager victory over Crystal Palace in his first match in charge at Old Trafford.
With 76 minutes on the clock, Rangnick seemed destined for a frustrating start to life in the Premier League. His side had looked more energetic than those of his predecessors but struggled to break down an obdurate Palace backline until space opened up for Fred on the edge of the area. The Brazilian is hardly known for his finishing expertise but he delivered an effort worthy of Cristiano Ronaldo or Bruno Fernandes, the ball bending gloriously into the far post to gift the new manager a perfect start.
It was a curious start to life with Rangnick. This was startlingly similar to an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer game, the cracks of a slightly underwhelming system papered over by a moment of remarkable individual quality from one of the cadre of $50 million-plus superstars. Yet this was far less predictable than that might sound, not just because of the unusual shape of the match winner. United’s forwards were as impressive as any players on the pitch but for once it was their work without the ball at their feet that defined the day.
The work of one training session under the pressing guru was immediately apparent. Every backward pass made by Palace would serve as the trigger for the United phalanx to dart forward. Crucially they did so in unison, including Cristiano Ronaldo. The No. 7 may have given the impression of a reluctant out of possession worker in recent years but for Rangnick he was chasing the ball with the intensity of a man half his 36 years.
The sight of Ronaldo pressing certainly seemed to have Palace discombobulated but Scott McTominay wasted an early chance to exert pressure on the opposition goal. United did at least ensure that most of the game was spent in the places they wanted to be in. A Ronaldo-Bruno Fernandes tandem flanked by Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, free to roam as they wished from the 4-2-2-2 template, offered plenty of bodies between Patrick Vieira’s backline and his midfield. Only by thumping it long could the Eagles move the game away from the danger area.
If the pressing game burst into life immediately it took rather longer for United’s possession play to click into gear. Not until the midpoint of the first half was Vicente Guaita truly tested, Ronaldo knocking the ball down for Fernandes to fire a low volley at goal, awkwardly hit and seemingly wobbling in the air. Palace did excellently to parry the ball to safety as United turned the screw on their visitors.
Seconds later Fernandes turned provider, skewing a pass towards Ronaldo but he could not get a shot away quite quickly enough before the Palace defense was positioned to block off his path to goal. United certainly held territorial sway but it was often a rather sterile dominance, Diogo Dalot getting Old Trafford off its feet just before the interval with a left footed effort that curled past the far post.
There was a sterility to United’s attack in the final third, as if they had spent so much time concerning themselves with how they might get the ball back that they had not particularly considered how they would put it in the net. That will surely come — no one who saw Rangnick’s RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim sides would claim they were goal shy — but Marc Guehi rarely seemed to be flustered by the pressure being exerted by this expensively assembled frontline.
It seemed it would take something quite special to break down a diligent Palace defense. That is what Fred delivered in front of the Stretford End. With no space to get a shot away in the box, substitute Mason Greenwood spotted the Brazilian in space to deliver a sumptuous strike that bent away from Guaita into the far corner. Moments earlier the Eagles had let their match-winning moment slip away, Jordan Ayew firing a James Tomkins’ knockdown across the face of goal off a corner.