There are only two ways Manchester United can ease this miserable season. Win the last three matches and, if not, play some sparkling stuff that offers hope for the future. On Monday night they achieved the first part of the quest to claim all their available final points. And also the second: this was as good as Ralf Rangnick’s team have performed during his stewardship.
It was crowned by Raphaël Varane’s 72nd-minute goal, his first for United, from a corner, 60 seconds before a walkout from the constituency disgruntled at the Glazer family. This was not observed in the numbers hoped for by the organisers: a sign of how the on-field product pleased home fans.
United, though, might still end this season with their lowest ever Premier League points total and have had three managers this term while hiring a new, incoming one: Erik ten Hag. Barring a miracle there will be no Champions League qualification and the post-game lap of “appreciation” following this final home outing was one that should embarrass all players despite the good reception offered by the Old Trafford faithful.
“Tonight we showed one of our best performances in the last six months in possession: 73%-74% in the first half and in total 65% … that was the reason we were controlling the game,” Rangnick said. “It was also the players on the pitch, three creative central midfielders with Juan Mata, Bruno [Fernandes] and Nemanja Matic. We were in control in most parts, still had a few gaps defensively but I was pleased with the performance we showed tonight.”
Game number 27 of Rangnick’s troubled interim tenure had Mata making a first league start this year – in place of Marcus Rashford, another sign of how his star has fallen. Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, has burnished his reputation following his return to the English game and there was no surprise when he jinked in behind Brentford’s defence and chested down a cute Diogo Dalot cross. Now, though, came a collector’s item: the usually clinical No 7 went to fire past David Raya and slipped.
This came after Thomas Frank’s side nearly scored barely three seconds after kick-off when Bryan Mbeumo ran on to Christian Eriksen’s laser-like pass, Alex Telles’s challenge saving United from the direst of beginnings. A throw-in, a corner from the right and one from the left ensued for Brentford, United continuing to scramble to clear. This seemed to augur well for the visitors.
But then the hosts struck. Dalot is a definite force when roving forward and he found Anthony Elanga and what occurred next was the type of 100mph-move craved by United enthusiasts. The winger zipped forward and pulled the ball back across Raya for the hurtling Fernandes to crash home a volley for his 10th league strike of the season.
Bruno Fernandes fires Manchester United into the lead against Brentford. Photograph: Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images
Frank instructed his players to be “cool” and they proved unshaken. Eriksen hit a 20-yard stinger that David de Gea needed two attempts to grab, while Rico Henry’s marauding was scattering United’s flaky defence.
Midway through the half a verse or three of “stand up if you hate the Glazers” was answered by many supporters getting to their feet. There was, however, a happier vibe here than usual simply because United were winning and zipping about like footballers who were far from maligned. Mata was one of the leaders of this gang, his smart play including a one-two with Ronaldo that ended with the Spaniard smacking an effort only marginally wide.
Ronaldo thought he had doubled United’s lead after he fired home Mata’s cross before half-time but his finish was ruled offside. At the break, this had been a contest of two attractive attacks against two questionable defences.
Ten Hag’s work has to start with the players protecting De Gea as, at kick-off, the goals against column showed 52 goals conceded – the poorest record of the division’s top nine. That number includes goals from those operating in midfield, of course. A driving Eriksen run from this region that forced Matic to yank him down. Eriksen’s free-kick was one of those wobbly, knuckleball affairs and De Gea had to shift feet and hands smartly to repel it.
Now came Ronaldo’s moment. Dalot’s ball fanned away from him along the right yet he shoulder-heaved Henry aside and flitted into the area. The defender’s response was to lump Ronaldo over and Christopher Kavanagh pointed to the spot. The Portuguese smashed the penalty in for his 18th league goal of the season and United were cruising.
Towards the end, Brentford offered the taunt of, “where’s your protest gone?” In a lost United campaign this was a backhanded compliment: the home team impressed for once.
“I’m not finished,” Ronaldo said to the TV cameras afterwards, perhaps to those who write him off. United could use his spirit.