Manchester United endured one of their worst seasons in recent history. So, what went wrong at Old Trafford in the 2021/22 campaign?
There was an aura of optimism around Old Trafford when Manchester United entered the 2021/22 season. A second-placed finish last term and a solid summer transfer window gave rise to hopes that the Red Devils could challenge Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea for the Premier League title.
After years of faffing about in the transfer window, where Manchester United were often left to sign their second or third choice targets, the 2021 summer transfer window brought a welcome change for their fans. The 20-time English champions went about their transfer dealings quickly, sealing Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho’s signatures.
A midfielder was on their agenda as well, but managing to keep Paul Pogba for another season seemed to have papered over the cracks, albeit temporarily. The Frenchman started the season with aplomb, giving rise to hopes that he had finally arrived, five years after returning to the club.
A 5-1 demolition of Leeds United at Old Trafford in the season opener only bolstered the hopes of the fans, who had been longing for a silverware since Jose Mourinho led the club to the UEFA Europa League title in 2017. Bruno Fernandes bagged a hat-trick, while Pogba provided four assists, sending social media into a frenzy.
Then came the statement signing, that of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Red Devils hijacked Manchester City’s move for the Portuguese international in an early sign that they are ready to compete with their city rivals on all fronts. And the then 36-year-old made an immediate impact, scoring a brace in his first match back at Old Trafford and another in his second outing.
Ronaldo among the goals but at what cost?
Cristiano Ronaldo continued doing what he does best, scoring goals, even as the team crumbled all around him and results deteriorated.
He single-handedly led Manchester United to the UEFA Champions League knockouts, scoring in every group-stage match, except the last one against BSC Young Boys, where he reportedly threw a tantrum and refused to sit on the bench – missing the encounter altogether – even with a knockout spot secured.
But even Ronaldo was not immune to Manchester United’s downfall, and his form eventually took a hit. He went six matches without scoring at the turn of the year, with his first goal of 2022 coming on February 15 against Brighton & Hove Albion in a 2-1 win.
The 37-year old’s off-the-ball work attracted heavy criticism. He was often detrimental to the team’s cause, failing to press high up the pitch, and putting pressure on his teammates to do the dirty work. Ronaldo’s stature often came in the way too as he focused on his primary job, that of scoring goals.
His failure to press high even forced interim manager Ralf Rangnick to ‘make some compromises’ with his high-pressing style of play. Ronaldo’s inactivity off the ball was highlighted by Manchester City’s preparation for the Portuguese ahead of the Manchester derby in March.
As per The Athletic, Pep Guardiola had reportedly instructed the player mimicking Ronaldo in their practice sessions to ‘approach the defender, but stop once he got there’. The forward missed the match eventually due to a hip injury. The former Real Madrid star finished the season with 24 goals across all competitions and was the team’s top-scorer, but it came at what cost?
Interim manager gamble does not pay off
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had signed a three-year extension that would have kept him at Old Trafford until 2024 just before the start of the season. And Manchester United should not be blamed for tying the Norwegian to a longer deal as early signs were hopeful, and he had just led the club to a second-placed finish in the Premier League and the UEFA Europa League final.
But results took a turn for the worse in October, which included a 5-0 demolition by Liverpool. Back-to-back defeats against Manchester City and a struggling Watford in November were the final nail in the coffin as Solskjaer was shown the door just over three months after signing an extension.
Michael Carrick was appointed the caretaker manager before Ralf Rangnick was signed on an interim basis, with the German set to take up a consultancy role after the season. The appointment was initially welcomed by Old Trafford faithful, who believed Manchester United had finally started to make the right noise.
But it all came crashing down. Rangnick struggled to leave an imprint on the Manchester United squad, who could not adapt to the German’s high-pressing style of play. From the outside, it appeared that the players were not completely sold on the idea of an interim manager, as they could be made to adapt to a completely different style of play in six months.
The Manchester United squad passed through the motions, fully aware that current performances will not have much say on their long-term future at the club. Eventually, Rangnick finished with the worst win rate as a Manchester United manager, worse even than David Moyes, guiding Manchester United to their worst-ever points-tally in the Premier League era.
A multitude of embarrassing defeats
Manchester United 21/22 – Every goal conceded pic.twitter.com/sBGhMadeM9
— Travis (@midfieldxr) May 24, 2022
Manchester United finished with a goal difference of zero in the Premier League, which could largely be put down to a host of embarrassing defeats they faced throughout the season. The first of the lot was a 4-2 defeat to Leicester City in October, which was followed by a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Liverpool at Old Trafford. That set the balls rolling, albeit in a negative way.
A 4-1 loss to Watford, who have been relegated to the EFL Championship, was one of the most embarrassing losses of the recently-concluded season. Rangnick steadied the ship temporarily as Manchester United battled to find an identity. But as the season drew to a close, heavy defeats became the norm.
Manchester City beat their neighbours 4-1, Liverpool sent four past Manchester United without reply, and Arsenal pushed them back in the top-four race with a 3-1 win before Brighton handed them a 4-0 drubbing. The last of the lot, the defeat to Brighton, showed that players had already given up by then.
None of the Red Devils’ players showed passion, the desire to win and the determination required at a club the size of Manchester United. Eventually, they finished with 57 league goals conceded and as many scored.
Too many unhappy players
Manchester United did not even handle their players properly in a shambolic season. There were multiple reports of dressing room leaks, which the manager and the club struggled to contain. Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial openly criticised Ralf Rangnick for a lack of game time, with the latter even being accused by Rangnick to have denied featuring in a draw at Aston Villa. The German also revealed that Lingard had asked to be released from the squad to face Chelsea.
Paul Pogba was asked to stay on for another season, with Manchester United aware that he would be leaving on a free in the 2022 summer transfer window, which would mean suffering a heavy loss on the world-record transfer fee they paid for the Frenchman.
Juan Mata, too, was reportedly puzzled as to why he was not afforded enough game time even when Rangnick saw things were not working out with other players. Even Marcus Rashford was rumoured to be looking at options away from Manchester United following a demoralising defeat to Manchester City.
With a host of players unhappy, it was always going to be tough for any manager to get the team going. Thus, a sixth-placed finish and no silverware to show for, is what Manchester United probably deserved after failing on all fronts.
Learnings for next season
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 25, 2022
Manchester United are prepared for a mass exodus this summer. Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Dean Henderson and Anthony Martial could all leave this summer. Some other players could join the bandwagon too, but that depends on the incomings.
New Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag will have to first ensure that the players are well-gelled, and the dressing room atmosphere is conducive to their goals, which was not the case this season with multiple reports of clashes among players.
The Dutch tactician, fresh from a title-winning season with Ajax, has a massive task at hand and will need time to leave his imprint on the side and get the players playing as per his requirements. The Manchester United fans, too, will need to be patient with ten Hag, especially after seeing what constant managerial changes has done to the club.
Manchester United are set to enter a new era, with fans seeming particularly excited for what is to come. But they will be more than glad that the 2021/22 season is finally over.