The situation was again looking rather stark. Some had naturally allowed themselves to believe that all had been eased by the 3-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur. A renewed hope spread through the hierarchy that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could indeed steady all this, take the club to the end of the season… and then who knows? There remains an optimism among some.
Most of the 2-2 draw against Atalanta reminded everyone just how precarious that hope is. The problems haven’t gone away. There was much more to the recent dismal spell than just a bad run of form or low confidence. Those problems weren’t arrested by the relief of an easy 3-0 win over a much worse Tottenham Hotspur.
Even more troublingly, Atalanta had eroded any idea that the new 3-5-2 formation was the solution many had thought. There had again been hope that such an approach could see Solskjaer shore up, avoid any more embarrassments, and gradually build the team back up. Atalanta just punched holes everywhere, though. United looked no more secure.
It all means this Saturday’s Manchester derby is another juncture match in the recent history of both the fixture and United’s form. So much of it goes around the man who saved Solskjaer on Tuesday, Ronaldo.
The next two days will naturally be filled with a lot of media talk about what happened in August between Manchester City and the Portuguese, and how he could only ever have come back to Old Trafford. It just isn’t true.
Ronaldo had got quite far in a planned move to City. Some connected to United initially found him hard to get through to, and a few felt that was because his mind was made up and he didn’t want to be talked out of a move. Pep Guardiola had even outlined precisely how he would fit into the City team.
That remains more than Solskjaer has done. It is not uncharitable to say that Ronaldo’s role in the United team still feels rather vague and undefined. It has just been one of many complications in Solskjaer’s difficult season. That has in turn led to much more debate over whether Ronaldo represents a problem or a solution for the Norwegian.
That may again seem remarkable given how many crucial – and brilliant – goals the Portuguese has scored lately, but it is merely a repeat of what has been said elsewhere over the last few years, from the national team to Juventus. Ronaldo guarantees he will produce, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the team will produce.
The blunt reality is that the 36-year-old has disrupted the chemistry of the United squad. Solskjaer may not have the most sophisticated vision of football, but he did have an idea for this team that was working to a certain degree, and was supposed to be completed by the signing of a defensive midfielder. Ronaldo changed all that. Solskjaer has had to shuffle the squad around, and that’s just the start. Other attackers have privately commented the presence of Ronaldo has conditioned their game because his ability demands that so much goes through him. Many are willing to put up with it because, well, “it’s Ronaldo!”
It was why Solskjaer did canvas opinion over whether they should really go back in for the Portuguese when the opportunity came up in August. Sir Alex Ferguson of course advised him to “get it done”.
The great Scot obviously commands immense respect in the game, but some who have heard his advice to other managers do make one key point. They say that Ferguson often speaks from the perspective of a young Ferguson – in other words, one of the greatest managers in the history of the game.
Few even come close to that. So, while Ferguson may have been able to act on a huge new signing in the most effective way – as he did with, say, Robin van Persie – that isn’t necessarily the case with many of his proteges. They don’t possess his capabilities, in short. Solskjaer certainly doesn’t.
When the Ronaldo move was suddenly a possibility, though, the Norwegian weighed it up and ultimately felt that the Portuguese’s goals would outweigh any other problems. Whether that has been the case is very much open to question.
The recent circulation of Ronaldo’s low pressing stats indicates it is virtually impossible to coordinate a modern system with him. A manager just can’t create a fully integrated press. There will always have to be a compromise, around Ronaldo.
It might equally remain true that it’s impossible to coordinate a modern press with Solskjaer as your manager. He just doesn’t do it. It’s not his way, and maybe not within his vision. As such, a situation is left where it’s up to Ronaldo to regularly solve the problems of United’s structure.
That does make it all the more tantalising to wonder what Guardiola would have done with the Portuguese. City clearly needed a No 9. Guardiola had that role in mind. It just wouldn’t have involved pressing in the same way the Catalan so often expected of forwards like Sergio Aguero.
The likelihood is that Guardiola is such a tactical genius – a description that genuinely isn’t an exaggeration – that he would have come up with something. It is probably something that no one else could even envisage, given that it is this very football imagination that makes the City manager so special.
Perhaps it might have been some sort of hybrid that honed a more restricted position for Ronaldo but ensured the champions maintained their usual dynamism around him.
Such ingenuity makes Guardiola’s struggles in this season and in this fixture all the more intriguing. The Catalan is evidently still working both out.
City are consequently a side that can have a very different complexion from one game to the next, as likely to win heavily as to struggle for goals and get picked off. In that, they are quite like his 2011-12 Barcelona.
That was a team that felt like they were always waiting for that first goal in games. If they got it early enough, they then had the release to run rampant. If made to wait, frustration further sapped their play.
The problem was that they were no longer the purest Guardiola side. As will inevitably happen as time passes with any team, different problems present themselves. They no longer possess that same intensity over the course of a long period of games, but inevitably remain good enough to raise it for any individual occasion.
That happened against Chelsea. That is why this fixture is so compelling for so many reasons. Why has Guardiola so rarely come up with anything different for this game, in the way he did for the 1-0 win over Chelsea?
Is it because he knows his team is better, and by rights should win the majority of contests? It hasn’t worked out like that. Solskjaer has the superior record.
We’ve seen the way it’s gone so many times. The images have been replayed so often, in so many different games. City have so much possession, but don’t use it, to eventually be left with Marcus Rashford racing away to score. What price the same happens this weekend?
It’s just a number of elements have disrupted that dynamic, too. For one, there’s Ronaldo. It’s not just about disrupting the team. It’s that it feels like it might have changed Solskjaer’s approach to such games. Is he as willing to go as defensive as he was in recent derbies, given how Ronaldo requires service? If he goes for the 3-5-2, can it really be as secure against City as it was against Spurs? They’re very different propositions, and a side as modest as Atalanta already exposed so many flaws.
But could City get frustrated against any kind of durability? Can Guardiola for once do something different for this match?
It may well be a contest between a defensive team recently struggling to defend, and an attacking team recently struggling to score.
There’s of course much more to that than Ronaldo. It’s just so much of it revolves around him.