Man Utd season review: From the high of Ronaldo’s return to rock bottom under Rangnick

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The Portuguese was meant to spearhead a Premier League title challenge but he instead had to perform one rescue act after another

It was a season to forget for Manchester United and one they will hope is a line in the sand after nearly a decade of failure since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.

It is easy to forget the optimism that accompanied the return of Cristiano Ronaldo last August.

A team that finished runner-up to Manchester City had already added Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho – and Ronaldo was seen as the icing on the cake.

What followed was United’s worst season in Premier League history – when, once again, they had to watch on as their fiercest rivals City and Liverpool dominated.

If this is rock bottom, then the only way is up. At least that is what new chief executive Richard Arnold is hoping for.

A new manager is in place, in Erik ten Hag, and the latest reboot is under way.

Can the Dutchman succeed where those before him have failed?

Player of the Season:

It is slim pickings given just how abject United were. Two stand out by a mile in Ronaldo and David de Gea.

On far too many occasions, post-Ferguson, United have had to rely on the brilliance of De Gea, which speaks for itself. In times of trouble, the Spain international excels – simply because he is called into so much action.

What made this season remarkable was the fact it came after a period when his position has been under so much scrutiny.

But the honor has to go to Ronaldo. For much of the season, he has been painted as the problem and the cure – but, without him, the campaign could have been so much worse.

Cristiano Ronaldo Manchester United Premier League 2021-22 GFX

Getty / GOAL

He is the man who provided the major highlights – particularly in the Champions League group stage when repeatedly rescuing United.

He may not be the future. But his return of 18 Premier League goals – just five behind joint Golden Boot-winners Son Heung Min and Mo Salah, despite playing fewer games than both – is evidence of his enduring potency.

He scored 24 in all competitions – including his dramatic strikes in Europe. He remains a phenomenon.

Goal of the Season:

By no means was it his best goal of the season – nor was it the most dramatic.

But it is hard to remember such a buzz around Old Trafford as there was on that Saturday in September when Ronaldo made his second debut for the club.

There were doubts about whether he would even start against Newcastle – but there were no doubts about whether he would deliver.

Cristiano Ronaldo Bruno Fernandes Manchester United Newcastle 2021-22 GFX

Getty / GOAL

The atmosphere was absolutely electric as he emerged last from the tunnel with that famous No.7 on his back.

The fans had to wait 45 minutes for the goal they’d been longing for – and when Freddie Woodman fumbled Sancho’s long-range effort, there was Ronaldo to tap in from close range.

He could not miss – but it did not matter. The king was back – and even added another in the second half of a rousing 4-1 win for good measure.

Performance of the Season:

The fact that United’s best display came on the opening day of the campaign says it all.

United were irresistible in a 5-1 rout of Leeds at Old Trafford – but how much of that was down to shambolic opposition, who would go on to narrowly avoid relegation?

Either way, it was a performance that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must look back on and wonder where it all went wrong.

A hat-trick for Bruno Fernandes, one for Mason Greenwood – and even Fred was on the score sheet.

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This was a statement of intent in a year when Solskjaer was expected to mount a genuine title challenge.

Bruno Fernandes Manchester United Leeds Premier League 2021-22 GFX

Getty / GOAL

But it all unravelled alarmingly quickly.

Another contender would be the 3-0 win at Tottenham in October, when United produced one of their most complete performances under Solskjaer.

It was notable due to the fact it came just a week after the humiliating 5-0 defeat at home to Liverpool – but it was only delaying the inevitable.

United should have cut ties with Solskjaer much earlier. Instead, they let the pain drag on.

Disappointment of the Season:

There were so many disappointments that it is hard to narrow it down to just one.

But the appointment of Rangnick was a culmination of so much of what has been wrong with United.

Firstly, they waited too long to sack Solskjaer. It did not take the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool – or even the 4-1 at Watford that eventually did for the Norwegian – to know that he was out of his depth.

Instead, United allowed their season to go into freefall before calling time on a failing reign.

Antonio Conte made it clear he wanted the job – but United’s hierarchy feared the Italian would be the wrong fit with the squad at Old Trafford.

They wanted Mauricio Pochettino – and he wanted them – but they weren’t prepared to get into a tug of war with Paris Saint-Germain.

Ralf Rangnick Manchester United Premier League 2021-22 GFX

Getty / GOAL

So, they turned to Rangnick as an interim, which effectively sent out the message that the season was a write-off before it had even reached the midway stage.

As for Rangnick – who has so often been credited as the inspiration for Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann – it could hardly have gone worse.

He steered a squad that finished second the previous season to sixth. And they needed a favor from Brighton on the final day of the campaign to avoid the Europa Conference League.

United’s only hope is that their decision to wait to make their next permanent appointment will pay off in Ten Hag.

The Verdict:

The significance of such an historically bad season may only be known in the years to come.

If this is what it took to finally bring about meaningful change at United, then fans may look back on this moment as an important turning point.

Frankly, they have to search for the positives, otherwise this was just a continuation of the managed decline over nearly a decade without Ferguson.

Football is all about hope – and that is all United fans have right now.

But with a new chief executive, a new manager and a repurposed and refocused football department, it feels like acknowledgment that something had to change.

The Glazer family are even being more communicative with fans – and Old Trafford could finally get a long-awaited facelift.

Add to that the departure of a host of players who failed to produce – most notably Paul Pogba – and this should be a new beginning for United.

Only time will tell.

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