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Manchester United: What now after Boro Cup humbling?

The pre-match stats suggested Man Utd are improving under Ralf Rangnick but the numbers during Friday's FA Cup humbling at the hands of Middlesbrough also painted a picture of missed chances.

But there's no getting away from the fact there remains plenty wrong with the Red Devils, something only highlighted further by their shock exit, which probably ended their hopes of lifting any silverware this season.

Boro always in the tie

Sometimes, a lower-league FA Cup victory over a Premier League giant plays out like a smash-and-grab, with the underdogs riding their luck before springing on the counter. However, while it's safe to say United were guilty of not taking some very presentable opportunities, Boro were always competitive in the tie.

By the time the clock ticked round to 90 minutes and extra-time, they had grown sufficiently in the clash to be fully deserving of a chance of penalties at the very least. They navigated the supplementary half an hour without too many problems, then gleefully took advantage, winning 8-7 on spot-kicks after some well-taken penalties.

United malaise

The Teessiders deserve plenty of praise for sticking at it and progressing past their more illustrious opponents, but what of United?

Can this latest aberration be put down to a lack of fortune and poor finishing, or is this the sort of result that we will see more often as the malaise at Old Trafford deepens?

The feeling is that the answer to that question is the latter. Why? well, it's fair to say while results have improved under their German coach, regular watchers of the 20-time English champions will tell you some of the performances have been decidedly average - and that's being generous. The 1-1 draw at Newcastle, a narrow 1-0 win at then-bottom Norwich, even a 3-1 success at Brentford masked a dire first-half display in which they were run ragged.

Then what to make of the draw at Aston Villa? Rangnick's side impressively carved out a 2-0 lead before completely running out of gas and ideas to let Steven Gerrard's side deservedly claim a point after the break.

It's a puzzle at United at the minute and one that may not be solved until they decisively bring in a new manager on a permanent basis.

Rangnick a mistake?

Rangnick arrived with a good reputation but placing him in charge publicly on a short-term interim role only appeared to muddy the waters further at a club that seems to be making a habit of making bad decisions.

Plenty of former players have criticised the hierarchy at Old Trafford for recent mistakes and it may end up being viewed - in time - that Rangnick's appointment was another one.

There's far too many reports saying former Tottenham and current PSG chief Mauricio Pochettino is their number one choice for the full-time job for there to be no truth in them but until, or maybe, if, Poch is appointed, the problems will continue.

Rangnick himself admitted only this week that the future of some unsettled players is up in the air because his own future is also uncertain and the lack of clarity, direction and permanence at United means the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.

The issue is that the players are well aware the man giving the matchday team-talks may well only be there until the summer so why bother giving him their full backing now?

That's a simplistic analysis, admittedly, that ignores the fact most top professionals will knuckle down and give their best no matter whose in charge, but there is an air of truth to it.

To make matters worse, some of their most influential players, like Paul Pogba, are also out of contract at the end of the season so we have a vicious, repeating cycle of uncertainty and indecision.

Ronaldo woe

There's also the Cristiano Ronaldo dilemma. The Portuguese forward's much-heralded return to his former club in the summer has, as of writing, not worked out.

There's obviously no doubting his ability but there's also the nagging feeling that, finally, Ronaldo's super-human exploits are finally on the wane, with him turning 37 on Saturday.

His performance against Boro was littered with poor passes and visible frustration with teammates and contained an unusual missed penalty to boot.

Ronaldo's display, where he was on the periphery of a game he would have once dominated, spoke of a player unhappy with his lot as he maybe privately wonders if making the return to his old club like he did in August was the best move for him after all.

Indeed, several pundits have said Ronaldo's return has had a negative impact on the squad and atmosphere at the so-called Theatre of Dreams, as the global icon hogged the headlines and raised expectations to an unachievable level while Rangnick - and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before him - were, perhaps reluctantly, forced to work their tactics around the former Real Madrid and Juventus ace.

Positives to cling to

The campaign could still end on a positive note, however. United are fourth in the Premier League, they have a game in hand and a point advantage over West Ham directly below and will face Atletico Madrid in the last-16 of the Champions League later in the month.

By April, things could have taken a much better turn for the better. A decent run in Europe plus a top-four place, for which they are 13/8 to achieve, could be well within their grasp. But that is being optimistic.

It may well take a regroup, change of approach and the arrival of someone like Pochettino in the summer to get United moving in the right direction once again.

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