‘Yes! The Theater of Dreams is on fire! We are alive! We are Man United and we never give up! This is Old Trafford!
So Cristiano Ronaldo shouted to his 358 million Instagram followers after another pretty decent night for the self-proclaimed Manchester Magic Factory.
It all contributes to the mystique of United, doesn’t it? Tightrope soccer, exciting open games, the danger of being left behind, the inevitability of a thrilling comeback.
What became Sir Alex Ferguson’s United hallmark has made a regular comeback under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. You can simply never write off United. Soccer, damn hell.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in debt to Cristiano Ronaldo again when Manchester United fought back from two goals against to beat Atalanta 3-2 in the Champions League.
Ronaldo’s header at the end capped off an exciting second-half comeback against the Italian team
The fans enjoy it all and why wouldn’t you? But relying on Ronaldo and the other United stars to continually rescue him is not sustainable for Solskjaer.
Ronaldo’s late header to cap off a two-goal comeback to beat Atalanta on Wednesday night disguised another overall performance that fell far short of the standards United should set.
Solskjaer’s team was hopelessly exposed on defense time and again by an Atalanta team who knew very well that there would be generous space and a slow closing to explode.
The same was true in their last Champions League outing against Villarreal when they were widely outclassed before Ronaldo’s act of rescue in the 96th minute scored an undeserved victory.
In the Premier League this season, we’ve seen the latest winners Mason Greenwood at Wolves and Jesse Lingard at West Ham.
Ronaldo scored a winning goal in the 96th minute as United beat Villarreal early in the group stage
Mason Greenwood scored a late goal for United in the Premier League at Wolves
Jesse Lingard was the winner of the match in the closing seconds at West Ham in a punch and grab
Of course, the job of quality players is to win matches for their team, but Solskjaer should be uncomfortable that it happens so often.
If things really progressed at United with the Norwegian, given the great quality he has at his disposal, the games would end much earlier.
There are serious doubts that Solskjaer’s United play with some kind of identity or game plan, there are doubts about the midfield and if the return of Ronaldo has altered the balance of the attack.
If you can see through the magic of these moments, and they are just moments, you will come to understand that it is not a long-term strategy to play like United and just wait for salvation at all times.
Paul Scholes, who never minded his words, took the issue seriously once his heartbeat subsided Wednesday night.
Wednesday night’s win barely relieves the pressure on Solskjaer amid a tough line-up of matches
United legend Paul Scholes was among those unimpressed by the comeback victory.
“ I understand the excitement of United, that first half put me off the second half. If they were playing on a better side, they would have been out of sight, ” Scholes told BT Sport.
‘The exhibition was something that I did not enjoy, it was worrying, it lacked unity and I, can they go play against better teams like that? No.
“For a neutral it has been a great game, full of enthusiasm and goals, but I am realistic about what is to come. I expect more from them, they cannot continue granting opportunities like this.
“They were playing in a decent team, but not world class, you can’t get too carried away.”
Many will, but his point that United looks like a team of individuals is correct. Leicester exposed this fact just a few days ago: They reduced Ronaldo, Greenwood and Jadon Sancho to the roles of anonymous spectators, knowing that cracks would appear elsewhere.
Real United were exposed by Leicester last Saturday when they fell to a 4-2 away loss.
The deficiencies in the rear were exposed by the Foxes and will be again by other good opponents
Atalanta spent 45 minutes gleefully jabbing defensive soft tissue, scoring twice. But Solskjaer has such depth of attack that he can continue to pitch more potential game-changing players like Sancho, Paul Pogba or Edinson Cavani until the game really changes.
He got away with it against Atalanta, but he’s unlikely to be that lucky if United fall two behind Liverpool at Old Trafford this Sunday. Other upcoming matches are against Tottenham, Atalanta again, Manchester City and Chelsea.
If Solskjaer is to emerge unscathed from all of that, he will likely need more rescues.
Leicester played last weekend as a cohesive team, following a well-polished and well-explained game plan devised by Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool, City and Chelsea, who are watching streets ahead of United at the moment, will follow suit.
Ronaldo cut an isolated and frustrated figure at the King Power Stadium while keeping it quiet
Still, United’s record in the biggest games in nearly three years from Solskjaer is pretty good. He undoubtedly has the tactical acumen to ensure United match their strongest opponents blow for blow.
Ask Pep Guardiola, who has been outwitted by Solskjaer three times in five league games with another draw.
Chances are, United will come out on top in one or two of those tough games and Solskjaer will accumulate enough credit to continue on the job.
It has happened before. In 2019-20, United lost to West Ham and Newcastle in the league and beat Rochdale in the Carabao Cup. Then somehow they held Liverpool to their only league draw between August and February.
Solskjaer generally sets up United effectively in big games, like Manchester City.
Solskjaer’s record against top bosses like Pep Guardiola is good, but progress remains limited
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Sunday Liverpool (H)
October 30 Tottenham (A)
November 2 Atalanta (A)
November 6th Manchester City (H)
November 20 Watford (A)
November 23 Villarreal (A)
A few weeks later, after shaky draws against Sheffield United and Aston Villa, they beat Tottenham and City within four days and Solskjaer moved on.
There was some teasing when United went into two against Atalanta, but the vast majority of United’s support remains behind the coach.
It was evident in the way the Old Trafford singing section sang ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ before kickoff and then stayed behind to sing his name as he completed the round of post-match interviews.
The good times feel better with a club legend in charge and there has been progress in the last three years. But United still appears to be far from adequately competing for top honors despite huge transfer spending.
Even with Ronaldo, Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Pogba, Cavani and everyone else to get them out of trouble in games, many will be lost or drawn along the way.
It really is rival United fans who are enjoying all of this. Solskjaer wins enough of the key games to keep the wolf out of the gate when it comes to the sack without making United strong enough to compete.
So they go on, those dramatic late winners wallpapering the cracks. Well, it’s a kind of magic.