MANCHESTER, England — When Ralf Rangnick asked for more consistency this isn’t what he had in mind. For the third time in nine days, Manchester United dominated, scored, stopped playing, conceded and drew.
“History is repeating itself again,” United defender Luke Shaw said afterward. “We started really well the first 20 minutes, got the goal and it just happened again.”
It’s not the only statistic that matters but Ralph Hasenhuttl’s team ended the afternoon with 14 shots to United’s 13, a fair reflection of the threat they posed to David de Gea‘s goal.
In a little over a week Rangnick’s side have gone out of the FA Cup and dropped four points in the race for a top-four finish and Champions League football next season against teams who started the day 20th and 10th in the table. What was left of United’s season is in danger of unravelling and Brighton & Hove Albion will certainly fancy their chances when they arrive here on Tuesday.
“Unfortunately it was very similar to the last couple of games,” United’s interim coach Rangnick said postmatch. “A very good first half, very good first half-hour. We did all the things we intended to do with the counterattacks and the deep runs. We created, scored a great goal.
“Then we stopped doing that; at the end of the first half we didn’t do those things anymore and then in the second we lost a bit of shape.”
For Rangnick, there are problems at both ends of the pitch. For the 10th time in his 13 games in charge, United failed to score more than once in a game and, just as in the cup defeat against Middlesbrough and in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at Burnley in the league, they paid a high price.
It would be unfair to point the finger solely at Cristiano Ronaldo — as Rangnick said in his prematch news conference on Friday — but at the moment he is offering very few solutions. Back in the starting XI against Southampton, his contribution was one shot cleared off the line by Romain Perraud, a goal ruled out by the referee’s assistant and a left-foot effort saved by Fraser Forster.
After sprinting to close down Forster he turned to see Marcus Rashford had not followed him, arched his back in frustration and slapped his thighs. It comes to something when pressing is the most eye-catching part of his game. It’s now six games and 537 without a goal.
Rangnick insisted his team had “big chances” to score a winner, adding: “Today we had an xG of 2.57 to 0.57 for Southampton. It’s not a question of not creating chances, it’s a question of not being effective enough.”
However, the pocket of Southampton fans in the corner of the stadium headed south also thinking they could have won. It’s quite a turnaround from the last time they left Old Trafford, almost exactly a year ago, when they saw their team get thrashed 9-0 on Feb. 2, 2021.
Former United captain Gary Neville showed that he wasn’t impressed with the way United went about trying to win the game by tweeting: “Breaking every rule in the book here United on how to chase a goal! Don’t give fouls away, don’t give the ball away, don’t force it, don’t lose your discipline and chase the ref.”
At the other end, Harry Maguire had another poor game. Too often he charged out into dangerous areas or was found brutally exposed by his lack of pace. He nearly made up for it with a stoppage-time header that was brilliantly saved by Forster but he was lucky, too, when he escaped sanction for a clumsy challenge on Armando Broja.
There is a case to be made for Victor Lindelof to start alongside Raphael Varane against Brighton. Ronaldo could have few complaints if he was also left out but that might depend on the fitness of Edinson Cavani, absent here because of a groin injury suffered in training on Friday.
“We had the clearer chances to win, but right now we are struggling to keep our composure and the structure for more than the first half,” Rangnick said. “We have to understand where we are. [Southampton] won 3-2 at Tottenham [on Wednesday], and they expected to win easily. We got a point today. We expected three and needed three, but that is the situation. That is why there was a change of manager and why we are here.”
There have been signs of improvement since Rangnick took over from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in December but it is not enough. Jadon Sancho, who scored his second goal in three games, is looking more like the player who dazzled at Borussia Dortmund while Paul Pogba has impressed since returning from injury. Varane and Diogo Dalot have also been positive but, collectively, there is still something lacking.
Despite having just two days to prepare to United’s three, Southampton turned up at Old Trafford like a team who had nothing to fear and they were right, probably knowing that at some point United would invite them into the game.
For the third time in a row, Rangnick’s team couldn’t keep it together for 90 minutes. Their top-four challenge is in danger of falling apart, too.