If Manchester United are to make it out of their Champions League group this season, they’ll have a lot to thank Cristiano Ronaldo for. It was, after all, the Portuguese forward who kick-started their European campaign with a stoppage time winner against Villarreal last month and it was the 36-year-old who spared his teammates, and maybe even his manager, with another late goal against Atalanta.
These sort of moments were Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s calling card as a player and he has carried that into management. His Manchester United team have won more points from winning positions than any other Premier League team since the start of the 2019/20 season and they once again demonstrated their capacity for a comeback by recovering from 2-0 down to win 3-2 on Wednesday.
For all that the second half goals of Marcus Rashford, Harry Maguire and Ronaldo roused the Old Trafford crowd and got United back to winning ways after the damaging defeat to Leicester City at the weekend, the fightbacks and team spirit in their group won’t mask their flaws forever.
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There is still a fundamental imbalance to Solskjaer’s team. This was exposed by Atalanta in the first half when the Italian visitors to Old Trafford exploited the space between United’s midfield and defence. Had it not been for a series of David de Gea saves, Atalanta could have killed off the hosts before their comeback even got going.
The central defensive partnership between Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof looked shaky, as has been the case for much of the last two seasons, while Bruno Fernandes struggled to have much of an influence, particularly in the first half when his range in almost everything he did was off.
Atalanta’s wing backs, Joakim Maelhe and Davide Zappacosta, found space in behind throughout, something that put Manchester United’s defence under pressure time and time again. The weakness from set pieces that has cost Solskjaer’s team dearly in recent weeks was also on show again as Merih Demiral headed home a corner kick.
Solskjaer at least demonstrated a willingness to make some big decisions with his team selection. Too often this season, the Norwegian has attempted to squeeze too many attack-minded players into the same side leaving Manchester United too top-heavy. Here, Paul Pogba was dropped to the bench in favour of a midfield anchor - Scott McTominay.
Rashford started, presumably not just because he scored off the bench against Leicester City on Sunday, but because his high-pressing skill set can compensate for Ronaldo’s lack of movement. Manchester United did indeed enjoy some success in pressuring Atalanta on the ball in their own half.
It still wasn’t enough, though. Fred and McTominay were frequently overwhelmed in the centre of the pitch where United left far too much space, where there was a gigantic disconnect between the midfield two and the front four. Physically, Lindelof and Maguire were bettered by Josip Ilicic and Luis Muriel, and Duvan Zapata when he was introduced off the bench, while the equaliser and winner came from hopeful crosses into the box - is that the strategy of an elite level side?
All this would be tolerable if United produced the odd comeback like this in between comprehensive victories over lesser opponents, but this is pretty much the only way Solskjaer’s team can win games right now. It’s only October and Manchester United have seen this sort of turnaround several times. It’s not sustainable.
Liverpool, next to visit Old Trafford, will expose Manchester United’s weaknesses more brutally than Atalanta could if Solskjaer’s team produce a similar performance this Sunday, and it is Liverpool who should be the yardstick against which United are measured, not Atalanta. Nothing witnessed on Wednesday night suggested the Old Trafford club are in any different a place to where they were after defeat to Leicester City.
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