Reaction, Highlights and Player Ratings : Atalanta 2-2 Manchester United

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Cristiano Ronaldo was at it again; the one man Champions League rescue act scored twice, one a sensational late equaliser, to salvage a draw at Atalanta for Manchester United – but whilst the result ostensibly keeps United in control of their own European destiny, this was a performance that will do nothing to deflect the pressure from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who will go into Saturday’s derby with Manchester City in as precarious a position as ever.

Solskjaer went for the 3 man central defence again, but made changes that had significant impacts to the way the team worked. First, in Eric Bailly, whose individual highlight reel would have looked impressive. Then, in came Paul Pogba, who put in one of his very worst performances for the club. And finally in Marcus Rashford, who spent too much time drifting wide in a formation that demanded he play central.

The changes undermined United’s approach and so there was little surprise when Atalanta got an early lead. It was a nice move down the left from the Italians as they exposed space left by Bailly; it was, however, De Gea who was at fault, with Ilicic’s shot squirming under him.

Raphael Varane then went down with what looks like a hamstring injury – and Solskjaer, knowing there was a game to chase, threw on Mason Greenwood. The change in shape did not really help United impose themselves on the game – and yet, on the stroke of half-time, they put together the best move of the match, with Fernandes cutely laying the ball off for Ronaldo to finish comfortably.

Blushes were spared, but as always with United, new ones were applied ten minutes into the second half. Bailly and Maguire looked an ill-fitting pair; the Ivory Coast star’s unpredictable style completely non-complementary to a slow partner who looks slower when asked to perform a sudden change of pace. That’s what happened when Zapata suddenly found space behind Bailly and Maguire looked hapless in his attempt to cover – 2-1. For all his individual theatrics which looked great, Bailly had played a significant role in both goals conceded.

United’s response was poor. McTominay was booked and looked a cert to be sent off. Solskjaer would have had memories of a Fred red card in Europe, but it was a damning indictment of just how poor Pogba had been that he was the man pulled off for Matic. Cavani came on for Rashford.

With three minutes left, United had still offered nothing, and the manager threw on Sancho and Van De Beek – two players signed by this boss who had not been given any fair opportunity to truly show their ability so far, now tasked with the mission of saving that man his job.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that drastic, but that is the territory we’re now in – so everyone would have been breathing a big sigh of relief when Ronaldo came up with the magic moment. Greenwood has been criticised for selfishness but at a crucial moment showed fine awareness to flick the ball up in the path of Ronaldo on the edge of the box – the legendary striker’s finish was magnificent, drilled in on the half-volley from 20 yards.

Van De Beek then had a half-chance to win it, but the headlines as usual were going to go to one man, who had matched and then surpassed the club goal record of his manager on the night.

It is a result that keeps United in control, just, but the performance will only invite critics. Ronaldo’s involvement and arrival has coaxed many more of them over, as he is a man who brings his own detractors in the form of sportswriters determined to push the narrative that the 36-year-old is a damaging rather than inspiring individual when it comes to the overall balance of a team and harmony of a squad.

Take Jonathan Liew’s verbose summary, labelling United as ‘the world’s stupidest football team’ and describing Ronaldo’s presence as a ‘Faustian pact’, that he ‘solves the problems that Ronaldo creates’. Which all sounds rather pre-prepared, especially when following Liew’s criticism of Solskjaer last week, where he compared this situation to the Ferguson era and praised the legendary manager for doing it his own way and avoiding the pull of nostalgia.

Which is all well and good, but it’s not factually accurate – Ferguson made discussions with Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy one of his priorities after arriving at the club, consequently bringing club legends Nobby Stiles and Brian Kidd on to the staff and acting on Murphy’s advice to re-sign Mark Hughes.

That’s not to say Solskjaer’s own drive to speak up or even leverage himself to the club’s history will be successful, but anyone who turns to that as an initial criticism is guilty of not observing the easier problems to see. In speaking of the club’s standards, Solskjaer is putting forward a case that results and performances need to be better, and he knows he is a part of that. If they do not improve, he will pay the consequence. This result was just enough – the performance was not.

It’s not the heritage part that is holding him back, nor the reliance on Ronaldo. It’s the faith invested in players who just don’t work out anymore, and the frequency with which ill-fitting combinations are put together to reduce the team to less than the sum of its parts. The Bailly and Maguire one was unfortunate because of the injury but how many players must Pogba be played alongside to be unlocked before it is determined that either he is the problem or the qualities of the players around him is?

Haven’t we already learned that United need a buzzing front line of movement to help get the best out of Ronaldo? And if that sounds like a leaning in to the idea that accommodations have to be made, well, that’s only the same as any player – moreover, it is highlighting that Greenwood and Rashford have to be more alert and unselfish with their own running, as moves often stop at their feet in front of the defence. This will come with experience, as Cavani and Ronaldo are demonstrating.

The argument against Ronaldo only exists if United are compensating and sacrificing to force him into the team and that’s simply not the case – they are defensively suspect as soon as they suffer even one injury (and even without) and they do not possess a midfield capable of dominating a game of football – it is far from, as Liew asserts, a squad ‘assembled for domination’, because without Ronaldo this midfield abyss would have always proven to be a handicap.

You wouldn’t criticise any manager for taking the chance on Ronaldo because once again he has proven himself to be one of the premier footballers in the world. He is defying conventional logic with his brilliance and if United’s other problems were fixed, that brilliance might well be making the difference rather than papering over the sizeable cracks.

Again, not to pick on Liew, but his ‘Faust’ reference indicates an already-held bias against Ronaldo, and he’s not alone in that; the length and tedium of the Ronaldo versus Messi debate has largely become so tedious because of how relentlessly brilliant both have been, but it has a consequential impact that so many are entrenched in one opinion over the other that it has manifested itself as a desire to criticise rather than celebrate.

Ronaldo’s spell at Juve is cited as evidence for how he makes a team poorer. Juventus are not exactly doing great at the moment.

United certainly look poorer than they were last season, but that’s because all of their issues are emphatically exacerbated against the projection of the new objective to win something. They are the issues that remain and were present last year. Demonising Ronaldo is done only to demonise Ronaldo and doesn’t stand up as a fair summary of what’s happening at United.

In fact, if Ronaldo’s arrival has proven anything, it’s that the owners still have an unhealthy input and control – there was no money for the midfielder Solskjaer wanted and needed, and yet there was money for Ronaldo because that would make money for the Glazers, who know a thing or two about leveraging short term financial harm against the club in the pursuit of medium term gain. So it proved, as after Ronaldo signed, the value of the club went up, and members of the Glazer family have cashed in to the tune of over £100m. That’s £100m that could have gone back into the club, but will not, and none of that is the fault of the manager.

It is, however, the responsibility of the manager to have the squad playing better, and it can do, even within this new system, as we saw on Saturday. The same principles apply – you can’t afford to make changes because the drop off in terms of quality is so significant that you end up chasing games, and as we’ve already seen, Ronaldo may well be one of the greatest but even he can’t rescue a side if the combinations are wrong. It’s a lazy and reductive argument to just throw the amount of money spent at Solskjaer because it a) undermines the mess he has inherited,  b) ignores inflation in transfer fees compared to previous generations and c) disregards the fact that a club like City were spending from a stronger position and can always spend more. (And, on a) – what a mess, by the way, that becomes more significant by the month – it’s all well and good spending money to improve, and Solskjaer most certainly has, but the havoc of the previous regime, the poor buys and the interference is always there to be seen whenever United need to make a change from their strongest team.)

Nonetheless, the prevailing argument is whether he is making the best out of what he has, and that’s what has Solskjaer’s job on the line. Bailly is going to have to play on Saturday but where will Lindelof feature? In the middle of that three? Will Bailly, as unpredictable as he is, be right in the middle? Pogba is suspended but Solskjaer must know that every time he picks him he’s putting his job in the hands of someone who has shown no indication of returning the faith that has been invested in him and signing a new contract.

When the dust settles on however – and whenever – Solskjaer’s era ends, his ‘cultural reset’ which has been so derided will be seen on its merits and will probably receive far greater praise as people come to understand the sheer volume of work that’s been done at the club.

There’s an irony that exists in the mindset of those who critcise people who support the manager, saying it’s blind misplaced faith out of his legendary status of the club. Not so. Having invited the criticism with the signing of Ronaldo which raised standards and expectations, Solskjaer now has to deal with that, and rightly so. He is having to deal with people saying he is resorting to a Conte-style formation – this is a consequence of staying faithful to a 4-2-3-1 when at the start of his reign at United, he demonstrated a fine tactical nous with different shapes. But time passed and a loyalty and faithfulness to certain players developed. This has come at an undeniable cost, but Solskjaer can’t hide from his role in that.

Perhaps even more concerning than any of this was the last gasp throw of the dice with Sancho and Van De Beek. Solskjaer has proven his man-management to be a plus during his reign but it can be questioned here. It almost felt like a thing Mourinho would do, asking players to do something that wasn’t fair or reasonable to expect. He will need to be fairer to that pair in the coming weeks, but that’s just one of the issues that Solskjaer is creating as he attempts to solve the wider malaise. Results will help, but only so much. Spurs was a good start – this was a step back.

United may well have got out of jail again in Europe but it’s very much a case of them being on parole – and the same goes for the manager, who simply can’t afford another tactical problem from the start against Manchester City.

Ratings

De Gea 5

Wan-Bissaka 6

Bailly 6

Varane 6

Maguire 4

Shaw 5

McTominay 6

Pogba 2

Fernandes 6

Rashford 5

Ronaldo 8

Subs :

Greenwood 6

Cavani

Matic

Sancho

Van De Beek

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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