TThe genius of modern Manchester United is that despite all the attention that is given to them, despite all the granular analysis they attract, they remain a largely unknown amount. When they take the field, you really have no idea what to expect from them. And not just in terms of results: Tactics, staff, effort and mood are equally unpredictable. They are the hyperactive toddlers in English football, just as capable of moments of surprising insight and unbridled joy as they are of throwing valuable household decorations on the toilet.
Of course, this is a quality much appreciated by the Ed Woodward and Glazer family, whose whole strategy has seemed to revolve around recreating this working-class football club as a flammable entertainment product.
Even fans still seem to be on board at the moment, acknowledging – rightly – that the benefits of a waterproof five-year plan and a cohesive backroom infrastructure must sometimes take a back seat to the haptic excitement of watching your lump of high-paying scams gives yet another sensational comeback.
And that, on a cool Lombard night, United went backwards again, came back again, changed formation again before the break, went backwards again, came back again, again, kept the United content machine going well and thoroughly. For Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who has been to the last chance salon so many times that he knows the bar staff by name and has long since learned all the questions by heart on the quiz machine, it was another evening that felt like it could decide everything and yet worked. to decide nothing.
His team sheet gave us a practical window into the confusion. Four of the five backs who had served United so well against Tottenham on Saturday were back in action. It was Paul Pogba too, but on a porous midfield tree alongside the wandering Bruno Fernandes and the overloaded Scott McTominay. In front, Marcus Rashford played out of Cristiano Ronaldo, an appropriate role for someone accustomed to feeding children. And then it was a system set up for defensive coverage. But also dominant possession. But also to play the ball through midfield. But also the counterattack.
An injury to Raphaël Varane forced Solskjær to switch to a 4-3-3 shortly before the break, and true that form was United in the final minutes returned to their standard by simply throwing fours forward on the field and letting them move on. with it. It worked. It will work most weeks; individually, United are so good. Yet there is a fundamental irony in the fact that a squad assembled for dominance is so bad without a ball that they sentence themselves to long periods of being dominated.
Both Atalanta goals were good examples of this. At first glance, Josip Ilicic’s goal was made by David de Gea’s fumbling limbs, which let the ball swirl through him like a tired fielder with deep square legs. But in reality, the situation was created when Remo Freuler was allowed to advance from midfield and play a simple unpressurized pass into the channel for Duván Zapata to cross.
Zapata’s goal came from an elementary long ball over the top from José Luis Palomino. And against a team as fast and fluid as Atalanta, United’s approach smelled from time to time: Keep doing something, and as soon as we find out what it is, we’ll try to defend it.
The problem here was not the effort: United’s three midfielders ran more than anyone else on the pitch in the first half. Much has been written and said in recent weeks about United’s reluctance to push from the front, but the real problem here is not so much that United are not pushing, it is that some of them do, and some of them do not, and almost never all of them at the same time. Fernandes is an enthusiastic presser, although he – strikingly enough – is often the only one. Rashford wants to push, but is not really very good at it.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, is pushing with all the enthusiasm from the guy who fumbles for his wallet when the bill comes but has no intention of getting it out. And when you have scored as many goals as he has, decidedly so many games, it’s probably a little late in the day to start arguing about his defensive output. He is here now, he has to play and very often he will save a match with two goals out of absolutely nothing and keep your Champions League campaign on track on his own.
This is the Faustian pact you willingly enter into when you turn your team into a Ronaldo pleasure machine. The studio expert sees a defense in chaos and a midfield overrun and a star striker simply strolling around waiting for someone to give him the ball. But chaos is not the fault of the system; it’s the system. It is baked in, priced, wired. Ronaldo wants to solve the problems that Ronaldo creates. Ronaldo wants to restore the supremacy that Ronaldo has helped to surrender. And if that sounds like a recipe for a team driven by chance, vibes and pure, blind circumstances: well, that’s just the genius in action.