In a season crammed with miserable moments and damming indictments, the image of Diego Simeone running down the Old Trafford touchline in celebration is sadly one of the most memorable for Manchester United fans.
The Red Devils had just been knocked out of the Champions League last-16 by Atletico Madrid thanks to an insipid 1-0 defeat, extending their trophy drought to an unfathomable five years. Interim manager Ralf Rangnick made a less hasty exit from the spotlight than Simeone and realised that United had finally turned a corner under his watch – but not one he’d have hoped for.
That night marked a “turning point” for the acclaimed German coach, whose tried and tested methods had failed to inspire a dysfunctional dressing room for the previous four months, leaving motivation low and apathy high. “Since we dropped out against Atletico, we have lost confidence and energy in the team,” Rangnick admitted in his final press conference last week.
“Until then I think we stabilised the team defensively, compared to the team that shipped four goals against Watford away. Until then we were more stable defensively. What didn’t happen in this development was for it to happen in a consistent, stable way. Either we had problems to score goals or preventing goals being scored against us.
“Since the Atletico game we didn’t find our shape, our form again. This has to to do with confidence, also a little bit with mentality, team spirit, togetherness. We just fell short in those areas.
“For me the biggest disappointment is we didn’t manage to develop a certain team spirit that helped us in different parts of the game. This happens to other teams but, for me, this is the biggest issue.”
Now the 63-year-old, who’ll remain an employee of the club in a consultancy role, hands the baton over to incoming boss Erik ten Hag. The Dutch tactician has plenty of items in his in-tray with the aim of making amends for the previous campaign, and pre-season will offer him an early opportunity.
United will face Atletico for a friendly match in Oslo, Norway on Saturday, July 30. It’ll be Ten Hag’s fifth game in charge and the trip to the Ullevaal Stadium will also mark five weeks since training began. The ex-Ajax manager and his team should therefore have enough time to at least make some difference compared to when Rangnick reigned, proving that they’ve learned their lesson.
With building team spirit often a pillar of pre-season tours, Ten Hag can also use the tour in Asia as a period of bonding on and off the pitch before heading back to Europe a week prior to the Premier League term getting underway.
The Red Devils kick off their summer schedule with a friendly against rivals Liverpool in Thailand before clashes with Melbourne Victory, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa in Australia. The 51-year-old’s training methods are said to be tough but effective, with days on the grass in June and July the perfect time to bring the squad up to his fitness demands.
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Unlike when Rangnick walked through the door mid-season, prompting reports that some players even had to Google him, Ten Hag has already laid out what he’ll expect from his players. “Everywhere I was in my career, I have high demands on my players. I expect them to fight and give 100 per cent,” he told manutd.com.
“I already mentioned that only good is [not] good enough – no, not only that. We have to do better and they have to co-operate. They have to be unified, to form a team, and to battle the opponent.”
When you play Atletico – pre-season friendly or not – you’ve certainly got to battle.