MANCHESTER, England — “That’s more like it,” said the presenter as he opened MUTV’s half-time coverage of Burnley‘s visit to Old Trafford on Thursday, and you could almost hear the relief spill out of the TVs dotted around the stadium.
The past 12 months have been a tough sell for Manchester United‘s in-house channel. It is, after all, difficult to put a positive spin on defeat in a European final, total humiliation at home to Liverpool and a run of form so damaging it forced the sacking of club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Thankfully for the operators of United’s television station — obliged, rain or shine, to find the best in everything — 2021 ended with an easy night. Ralf Rangnick’s team scored inside the first 15 minutes of a Premier League league game for the first time this season, scored three goals in the first half of a league game for the first time since February and eventually cruised to a 3-1 win.
More like it, indeed.
“Now eight games in a row without a defeat, it is about taking next steps,” said Rangnick afterwards. “As expected it was a very tough, physical game against a team who play very physical.
“We also showed the qualities we have in our team. It was important today to raise the energy level. The whole team performance was a lot better.”
Watching United escape with a draw against Newcastle United four days earlier, it was easy to forget that these are still some of the best players in the world. The truth is that for much of 2021 they have not played like that, and success in 2022 will depend on whether the performances against Burnley — collectively and individually — are a flash of hope to be quickly extinguished or a sign of things to come.
Luke Shaw, poor since helping England to the Euro 2020 final in the summer, was back charging down the left. Jadon Sancho, driving forward with pace and purpose, gave a passable impression of a forward who used to play rather well for Borussia Dortmund. Shaw and Sancho combined for United’s second goal — put down as a Ben Mee own-goal — after Scott McTominay had scored an eighth-minute opener with a pinpoint finish from the edge of the penalty area.
With the ball safely nestled in the net, McTominay sprinted towards the corner flag shouting “come on” at the top of his voice. It wasn’t only the MUTV anchor feeling a sense of relief.
Cristiano Ronaldo got the third, the 14th goal since his return to the club, after McTominay’s effort came back off the post.
McTominay, outstanding against Burnley, has taken more than his fair share of criticism this year but his effort and attitude is not in question. The same cannot always be said for some of his teammates.
The first six months of 2022 will, undoubtedly, focus on the search for the next manager, but if this group is going to be successful, they will have to learn you can’t always hide behind the man in the hot seat.
Solskjaer came up short, and it was for the good of everyone that he left when he did, but he also wasn’t helped by his players. It wasn’t his fault, for example, that Harry Maguire got himself needlessly sent off during that disastrous defeat at Watford that was enough for the Glazers to finally run out of patience.
Rangnick, Mauricio Pochettino, Erik ten Hag or whoever it is next can change training or organise their teams in different ways, but managers can only do so much. Players, eventually, have to take responsibility for what happens on the pitch. Manchester City and Liverpool do not win simply because of Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp. It helps, of course, but it’s not all down to them.
It can’t just be about being happy with the status of playing for United, but proving you belong there day after day. In that regard at least, McTominay is an example others can learn from, and it’s something Rangnick is already trying to address.
“Now is the time we really start stepping up and doing much, much better,” said McTominay. “The manager is so demanding and we play for Man United, it is what we have to do. We need to do more and hopefully in 2022 we can do that.”
Playing on the front foot with the right energy and intensity is easy when you’re swatting away a Burnley side gutted by COVID-19 and without a win since October. The real challenge is to replicate it again and again and match City, Liverpool and Chelsea week after week.
Then MUTV would really have something to shout about.