The Build Up: Manchester United vs Middlesbrough
Updated: Feb 4
Boro travel to the Theatre of Dreams with an army of Teessiders as they look to recreate their cup heroics of yesteryear.
Middlesbrough got back to winning ways last weekend, and nobody can say that they haven’t earned their reward of a trip to Old Trafford this Friday.
You can be sure that Wilder and his players will have read up on Boro’s exploits from the last time us Teessiders arrived at Old Trafford in the cup. You can be sure that Leo has delivered a chest-beating, awe inspiring presentation to the squad.
But since taking over in early December of last year, Ralf Rangnick and his Manchester United side have only lost one game, and they won’t be in the mood for a cup shock.
Just short of 10,000 Teessiders are set to invade Manchester for an a FA Cup fourth round clash on Friday night, as Paddy McNair and Matty Crooks return to face their former club, and here’s everything you need to know ahead of it.
Nickname: The Red Devils
Stadium: Old Trafford
Current league position: 4th
Last season finish: 2nd
Manager: Ralf Rangnick
Current Top Scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (8)
Fun fact: Legendary manager Sir Matt Busby only bought 16 players in his 13 years in charge of United before the Munich disaster. Four of them were goalkeepers and he didn’t buy a single player in the period between 1953-1957.
Manchester United. Simply one of, if not the biggest football club in world football, who’s home has and always will be an architect of footballing dreams. However, in the years following the end of the era of their most successful ever manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, this iconic club has failed to reach the heights that they have scaled many a time before and have not won a league title since the 2012-13 season - Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season as United manager.
To find out more about how the club is fairing under new interim manager Ralf Rangnick, I spoke with Alan Bince (Twitter - @alan_bince) from the 2x finalists at the Football Content Awards and hugely popular Manchester United fansite, The United Journal (Twitter - @theutdjournal). Here’s what Alan had to say on the current state of his Manchester United side and his thoughts on Friday’s match.
What is the general fan opinion of Ralf Rangnick?
“Fans are quite optimistic and happy with the way Ralf Rangnick's team are performing at the moment. Game by game, reactions tend to change but that's natural in my opinion.
“Personality wise, Rangnick is very honest and straightforward with what he does both on and off the pitch and I sincerely hope that his positive attitude resonates within the current squad at United.
“Concerns still remain regarding the German manager's long term suitability to his current role as a coach at the club due to the limited time that he's got with his players in a short span of time since his interim appointment.
“I'm fully expecting a change in management role at the end of this season, paving the way for either Pochettino or Ten Hag.”
What has Rangnick changed and done differently from Solskjaer?
“Well, his overall approach to the game has been different. I wouldn't say that it's holistic in nature but he's quite pragmatic. At United, he has been working on things in the form of modules within a short space of time.
“Currently he is working on the team's defence since they conceded a good number of goals in open play from the start of this season. His team are defending well at the moment, keeping 4 clean sheets in all competitions since the departure of Solskjaer.
“Now, he will need to find solutions and work closely on the team's passing, cohesion as well as defensive actions up top. Squad needs improvement in summer and players need to be patient in build-up while scoring goals. I think that's the main challenge for Rangnick moving forward.”
Can we expect United to rotate their team selection for the game?
“That depends on a lot of factors. Being speculative here but I do expect some kind of a rotation. Recent incidents, international games, injuries and winter break might force the manager's hand while picking the squad.
“Rangnick highly prioritizes the FA Cup 4th round fixture against Middlesbrough as it is a good opportunity for the team to compete for silverware. I feel United's South American players will sit this game out and Pogba is said to be fit but unsure whether he'll feature.
“Jadon Sancho might start on the wings and Dean Henderson could start instead of David de Gea. I have a gut feeling that Rangnick could mix up his formation a little bit. I don't think Ronaldo will start though but it isn't impossible as Rangnick regards this fixture high on his checklist.”
How are United likely to approach the game tactically?
“Based on the last few wins, I'm assuming that Rangnick will stay with the same formation i.e. 4-2-3-1. The team will try to start the game on the front foot. The main objective will be to put pressure upfront and try to score an early goal to take control of the game.
“Also, I expect the team to change its shape in the second half based on the scoreline at half-time. Rangnick has been pretty vocal about vertical build-up passing and that's something the team have been working on.
“I believe that fullbacks could play a huge role here and this game is a good opportunity for players occupying those positions to trust themselves and take risks against opposition in one-on-one duels and take-ons.”
Alan’s Match Prediction
Manchester United 1-0 Middlesbrough
The Form Book
Middlesbrough (Last six: WLWWWW)
Middlesbrough 1-0 Coventry
Blackburn Rovers 1-0 Middlesbrough
Middlesbrough 2-1 Reading
Mansfield Town 2-3 Middlesbrough (FA Cup)
Blackpool 1-2 Middlesbrough
Middlesbrough 2-0 Nottingham Forest
Manchester United (Last six: WWDWLW)
Manchester United 1-0 West Ham United
Brentford 1-3 Manchester United
Aston Villa 2-2 Manchester United
Manchester United 1-0 Aston Villa (FA Cup)
Manchester United 0-1 Wolves
Manchester United 3-1 Burnley
Head-to-Head League Record
Matches played - 101
Wins - Middlesbrough 27-52 Manchester United
Draws - 22
Goals - Middlesbrough 143-183
Points - Middlesbrough 103-178
Last League Meeting
That Famous Night
Middlesbrough 1-3 Manchester United - March 19, 2017
Manchester United 2-1 Middlesbrough - December 31, 2016
Manchester United 0-0 Middlesbrough (1-3 Pens) - October 28, 2015
Middlesbrough 0-2 Manchester United - May 2, 2009
Manchester United 1-0 Middlesbrough - December 29, 2008
Manchester United 3-1 Middlesbrough - September 23, 2008
6th, won 13, drawn 6, lost 9
Goals scored 32, goals conceded 26
Clean sheets 10
4th, won 11, drawn 5, lost 6
Goals scored 36, goals conceded 30
Clean sheets 5
Middlesbrough came through their 1-0 win over Coventry City last weekend with no fresh injury concerns, and thus Chris Wilder should have almost a full squad to pick from on Friday.
I say almost because January signing Riley McGree was dealt a setback as the midfielder has tested positive for Covid-19 whilst away on international duty with Australia.
McGree is now in isolation with the Socceroos and will return to Teesside once fit to do so. That does mean that he will now miss the opportunity to make his Middlesbrough debut on Friday, which in truth seemed highly unlikely to happen anyway due to the nature of him playing multiple international games and extensive travelling.
Other than Marc Bola and Sammy Ameobi, everyone else appears to be fit and available for selection, and it will be very interesting to see what Wilder does with his team selection for this one. Does he go full strength and unchanged? Or does he afford some players a rest? You’d think nobody would want to be dropped/rested for this one though.
As for United, Ralf Rangnick has a few selection dilemmas awaiting him, with players missing recent games due to injury, illness and personal reasons all potentially becoming available to him for Friday.
Perhaps the most Marmite midfielder in world football that is Paul Pogba could be set to make his return after recently returning to training from a thigh injury that has kept the French international out since November.
Full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw are hopeful of a return to United’s matchday squad after the former appears to have recovered from illness, whilst the latter appears hopeful of a return after recovering from a hamstring injury.
Winger Jadon Sancho and central defender Victor Lindelof (aka Diego Forlan 2.0, if you know, you know) have both missed The Red Devils’ last few games due to personal reasons, and Rangnick confirmed that the latter will not be available after not training at all this week. It is unclear whether Sancho will be available.
Fred, Edinson Cavani and Alex Telles have all been away on international duty for their respective nations, with Rangnick confirming on Thursday the Cavani would not be available for selection. It is unclear if the other two will be fit and ready to start on Friday. Centre back Eric Bailly has also been ruled out with an ankle injury.
Anthony Martial, Donny van de Beek and Amad Diallo won’t be available after all departing Old Trafford since United’s last game against West Ham United. Rangnick also confirmed that Jesse Lingard has been granted a couple of days off to “clear his head” and will miss Friday’s game.
Speaking ahead of Boro’s cup tie against Man United on Friday, Boro boss Chris Wilder isn’t treating this game as a holiday, as he told reporters:
“They’ve got some fabulous individuals and they can hurt you - but hurt three-quarters of the Premier League, if not more, and in Europe as well. They have a huge array of talent.
“But it’s not a sightseeing tour from our players, it’s not a shirt-swapping situation. I don’t want people to go into Old Trafford and enjoy the visit.
“I want the players to play well, I want us to give a good account of ourselves and make it really competitive, make it a dangerous night for Manchester United - and if we play well, I believe we can do.”
Wilder believes that Friday’s game is an ideal chance to see how far his side have come, and believes it can be an occasion that motivates his players to want play in these types of arenas in the Premier League next season, saying:
“It’s an opportunity to pit ourselves against world-class players and a world-class football club that’s at the top table and wants to challenge for major honours.
“Of course the club has had Premier League experience and the players want to go to Old Trafford and Anfield and the Emirates and the Etihad every other week and they want to host every club in the Premier League and be part of that.
“That’s where everybody wants to be and that has got to be a target and an ambition for everybody at the football club to try and achieve.”
Speaking after an eventful week at the club, Manchester United interim boss Ralf Rangnick believes his side are focused on looking forward to Friday’s game, saying:
“We had a good normal week of training with five training sessions including today’s training.
“It was a good week of training, we could train under normal circumstances and we are looking forward to the game tomorrow.”
Speaking on the Mason Greenwood situation and how it had played a part in the decision to keep Jesse Lingard, Rangnick would tell reporters:
“Obviously, it was a topic within the team but they’re human beings and Mason was part of the group before we had our break.
“With the window closing Monday evening, the board informed me they would rather he stay. We had a problem with Mason Greenwood, being without a player for the time being and the club not finding an agreement with another club.”
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): GK: Joe Lumley DEF: Dael Fry, Anfernee Dijksteel, Paddy McNair MID: Isaiah Jones, Jonny Howson (C), Marcus Tavernier, Matt Crooks, Neil Taylor ATT: Folarin Balogun, Andraz Sporar
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): GK: David De Gea DEF: Diogo Dalot, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw MID: Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic ATT: Anthony Elanga, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: Gary Beswick & Darren Cann
Fourth Official: Martin Atkinson
VAR: Stuart Atwell
Additional VAR: Neil Davies
You know what I love about this Boro team under Chris Wilder? Their bouncebackability. On the two occasions that Middlesbrough have tasted defeat under Chris Wilder, they’ve won their following game, and that resilience and ability to not let a disappointing result get the better of them is the sign of a really good team.
Good thing too, as they’ll be facing another really good team this Friday night, as they travel to one of world football’s greatest amphitheatres and the aptly named ‘Theatre of Dreams’, Old Trafford, to take on Ralf Rangnick’s Manchester United.
Middlesbrough know fine well how special it is to win at Old Trafford too, and have indeed picked up some memorable results there in the past. From a 3-3 draw in 1997 that included a goal from Juninho in front of the Stretford End that many an experienced Boro fan will have down as one of the clubs greatest ever goals, to a classic 2-3 win in 2004, and of course our cup win in 2015.
Someone else of a Middlesbrough persuasion who knows all about winning at Old Trafford is none other than Boro boss Chris Wilder. His then Sheffield United team turned The Red Devils over in a 1-2 away victory in the Premier League last season.
And he can take confidence in the fact that the majority of the encounters when Boro and United get it on are relatively close games, with none of the previous seven matches being won by more than two goals for either side.
But this fabled stadium has been rather generous to travelling sides this season, with only Brentford, Everton, Norwich and Watford losing more home league games than United’s four so far this season.
And it hasn’t taken a genius to know where United’s main problem has been this season, it’s their defence. Look it’s still not a bad defensive unit, you only have to look at the money spent in recent years on the likes of Varane, Telles, Maguire, Lindelof etc (That’s £150M+ there alone). And as Alan mentioned earlier, United’s defence under Ralf Rangnick does appear t be tightening up.
But you would imagine that their current centre-back options such as Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Raphael Varane don’t exactly fill opposing strikers with the same amount of fear that Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand did with all due respect. United used to pride themselves on their defenders and the way they played as much as their attackers, they used to be feared, and now it’s the defence that fears United fans as much as it entices the opposition.
And if Boro had been playing this game a couple of months ago under the reign of Neil Warnock - an era that saw Boro’s defenders concede a goal in increasingly inventive ways every week - we would probably be having those exact same concerns. But since Wilder has arrived, the defence has for the most part corrected these errors and now play with confidence and freedom.
That’s why if Boro can be tight at the back, and frustrate a United attack that is full of world-class talent - there is a number seven that plays for them who’s apparently decent but I don’t know his name. I’ll have to ask Dael Fry -, then Boro, and indeed Boro fans, should be confident that United’s unconvincing defence will offer up a chance or two.
I really don’t know which way to call this game. I really do fancy a Boro upset, but on the other hand, United’s hands being largely tied in terms of being able to rotate their squad may well mean the big guns like Ronaldo and Fernandes have to start the game.
I do have a funny feeling that this game will be decided in the same fashion that it was in 2015, penalties. And I’ll go with my head and say United scrape through but only after Boro give them a massive scare.
Let’s be honest though, so long as Dael Fry gives a proper Teesside greeting of ‘alright mate’ to Cristiano Ronaldo in the tunnel, I think that has to go down as a win for all of Teesside.
Prediction: Manchester United 1-1 Middlesbrough AFT (United win on penalties)