Manchester United produced a thrilling second-half comeback to beat Atalanta at Old Trafford, but they haven’t overcome some of the biggest issues of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure
At half-time in Manchester United’s Champions League match against Atalanta, some onlookers were beginning to write Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s footballing obituary.
Solskjaer’s team were 2-0 down against their depleted visitors, with Mario Pasalic opening the scoring and Merih Derimal left free to head home a corner.
And yet, when the final whistle blew, United and their manager were back on top thanks to Marcus Rashford, Harry Maguire and a winner from Cristiano Ronaldo.
At this point, the result will feel like it means more than the performance, but it leaves plenty of questions still unanswered.
It was typical of the Solskjaer era, with individual moments helping United recover after individual limitations put them in trouble to begin with, and that doesn’t necessarily bode well.
UEFA via Getty Images)
If the last year or so of Solskjaer’s tenure has been characterised by the narrative around him changing from one week to the next, Wednesday night saw it flipped on its head over the course of 90 minutes.
Former United midfielder Paul Scholes was left frustrated by the performance, suggesting on BT Sport that – with a match against Liverpool on the horizon – no one can get too carried away about the club’s fortunes.
While Solskjaer was given credit for the big selection decisions he made going into the game, we remain none the wiser about whether those decisions are decidedly better or worse than the alternative, and one would imagine there’s only so much longer this can go on.
Plenty of the talk before kick-off surrounded Solskjaer’s decision to play a double-pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay, leaving Paul Pogba on the bench.
However, once the dust settled, it could be argued that United won despite this decision and not because of it, with Atalanta creating plenty of chances throughout the game.
Even then, though, the introduction of Pogba itself wasn’t the game-changing moment, with the Frenchman only entering after a moment of genius from Bruno Fernandes for Rashford’s goal had given the hosts hope and made the crowd believe a comeback was possible.
If a supposedly bold tactical change has no material effect, what does that say about how the squad is being used?
UEFA via Getty Images)
As United prepare to face Liverpool, then, they do so without having learned anything concrete about what might work and what might not.
Yes, they scored three goals, but those goals came against a team missing key defenders from the start, losing another partway through the game, and playing 90 minutes with a midfielder at centre-back.
Playing every week against a depleted defence isn’t just something you can decide to do; and even then, United fell short last season against a Liverpool side with back-ups Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams starting the game.
What’s more, this is far from the first time we’ve seen United put in this kind of performance, and it’s not even the first time this season..
Sometimes it has resulted in defeat, as with the trip to Leicester last weekend.
On other occasions – such as the win over Villarreal – some individual quality has seen them prevail despite everything which has come before.
Solskjaer played for Manchester United during an era when relentless attacking and individual brilliance was often enough, and there’s no doubting there’s something exhilarating about watching this kind of win as a fan.
Even then, though, that quality was often insufficient without faith that the team knew how to improve structurally from one week to the next.
The best teams will respond to making one mistake by taking measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and the best managers will be able to instil that in their squads.
United have more talent in their squad than most, which ensures moments of quality like those against Atalanta will arrive more frequently than they might at other clubs.
Still there remains a sense that there’s enough talent in the squad that they shouldn’t need to win like this, and they certainly shouldn’t keep needing to do it after more than 100 games under the same manager.