The Manchester United Holy Trinity statue is a feature of the Old Trafford landscape. For a club increasingly burdened with unfamiliar comparisons to their past, while more are always being born, the specter of an unholy trilogy looms. Forget Best, Lou, and Charlton, this portends fall to be among their worst.
Sunday brings a third meeting with the title contenders, and their presumed counterparts, and the first two encounters amount to humiliation. United started at Stamford Bridge 12 points behind Chelsea and after conceding more than five times the number of goals. Liverpool scored five goals, and Manchester City only two, but neither of them bothered to increase their tally in the last forty minutes as they seemed to announce against the defeated rival. As Michael Carrick admitted, a gap opened. If there is a gap between the best and the rest, United are on the wrong side of it.
“There is no denying where the league is, so I have to be realistic,” said the interim manager. “It is very clear from the series of matches. Where we are and the results we have obtained, it is frustrating and disappointing.”
Carrick used to bring calculated style into midfield. It was quite natural that he was looking forward to adding perspective. “It wasn’t too long ago that we were second and we were on a really good curve of improvement and I don’t think that can be forgotten,” he said. “It’s very different to have a string of poor results to be a poor team.”
If the evidence of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s fraught last few weeks is United’s meeting with that description, the squad full of potential offers room for improvement under Ralf Rangnick, when he takes over in interim responsibility. His legacy is certainly mixed but there are rewards for coaches who are able to reimagine and renew a poorly performing group and for players motivated by the uncertainty of change.
“Whenever anyone has a new manager in any area of life, there is a feeling: ‘What next?'” said Carrick, who has played for four managers and is a temporary observer for United. “You can’t hide from it. But people react in different ways: sometimes it gives them freshness and vitality to go and be their best and perform better.”
Combine a sense of untapped potential and a skydiving precedent in a mid-season German evangelist, and that might bode well. Frank Lampard’s reign began with a 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford and ended Solskjaer’s lead with United and ninth Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel started by going 14 matches unbeaten; Within a few months, Chelsea was the European champion.
Rangnick, Tuchel’s mentor, might hope to emulate one of his followers. Chelsea’s road to glory was paved with the clean sheets that were once a porous defence. Carrick oversaw United’s third closing in 26 games on his managerial arc against Villarreal. He is certainly not willing to write off this campaign.
“There is a lot left in the season,” he said. “Sometimes you have really bad periods in one season, and you can have another season roughly within one season when things change.”
Alex Ferguson won 13 league titles with United by maintaining excellence over a long period, and Carrick said: “Seeking consistency is always the balance you want. That is the gold standard.”
Season-long consistency has eluded Solskjaer, but his union can veer from famine to feast, sometimes without warning. They won 14 of his first 17 games provisionally, were unbeaten in 19 when spurred by the arrival of Bruno Fernandes and then lost once in 28 league games last season.
“Who says this group of players can never run again?” Carrick asked. “They have proven over the past two or three years that they are more than capable. You have to take it step by step, start winning games, running, building momentum. Anything can happen after that.” As Chelsea can attest.