The genius of the modern Manchester United is that for all the attention lavished upon them, for all the granular analysis they attract, they remain a largely unknown quantity. When they take the field, you genuinely have no idea what to expect from them. And not just in terms of results, either: tactics, personnel, effort and mood are all equally unforeseeable. They are the hyperactive toddlers of English football, equally capable of moments of startling insight and unfettered joy as they are of throwing valuable household ornaments into the toilet.
Naturally, this is a quality greatly prized by Ed Woodward and the Glazer family, whose entire strategy has seemed to revolve around reimagining this working-class football club as a brandable entertainment product.
Even the fans still seem to be on board for the time being, recognising – correctly – that the virtues of a watertight five-year plan and a coherent backroom infrastructure must occasionally take a back seat to the haptic thrill of watching your clump of highly paid frauds pull off yet another sensational comeback.
And lo, on a chilly Lombardian night United again went behind, again came back, again changed formations before half-time, again went behind, again came back, again kept the United content machine well and truly in business. For Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who has been in the last chance saloon so many times he knows the bar staff by name and has long since memorised all the questions on the quiz machine, it was another night that felt like it might settle everything and yet seemed to settle nothing.
His teamsheet offered us a handy window into the confusion. Four of the back five that had served United so well against Tottenham on Saturday were in operation again. So was Paul Pogba, but in a porous midfield three alongside the wandering Bruno Fernandes and the overloaded Scott McTominay. Up front Marcus Rashford played off Cristiano Ronaldo, an appropriate role for someone so used to feeding children. And so it was a system set up for defensive cover. But also dominating possession. But also playing 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 to form, by the closing minutes United had reverted to their default of simply flinging four forwards on to the pitch and letting them get on with it. It worked. It will work most weeks; individually United are that good. Yet there is a basic irony in the fact that a squad assembled for domination is so poor without the ball that they condemn themselves to long periods of being dominated.
Both Atalanta goals were good examples of this. At first glance Josip Ilicic’s goal was crafted by the fumbling limbs of David de Gea, who let the ball squirm through him like a tired fielder at deep square leg. But really the situation was created when Remo Freuler was allowed to advance from midfield and play a simple unpressured 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 quick and fluid as Atalanta, United’s approach did occasionally smack of: go on, you do something and as soon as we work out what it is, we’ll try and defend it.
The problem here wasn’t 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 press from the front, but the real issue here isn’t so much that United don’t press, it’s that some of them do, and some of them don’t, and almost never all of them at the same time. Fernandes is an enthusiastic presser, although – arrestingly – often the only one. Rashford wants to press but isn’t really very good at it.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, presses with all the enthusiasm of the guy who fumbles for his wallet when the bill arrives, but has no intention of actually getting it out. And when you have scored as many goals as he has, decided as many games, it’s probably a little late in the day to start quibbling about his defensive output. He’s here now, he’s going to play, and very often he’s going to rescue a game with two goals out of absolutely nothing and keep your Champions League campaign on track single-handedly.
This is the Faustian pact you willingly enter when you turn your team into a Ronaldo-pleasure machine. The studio pundit sees a defence in chaos and a midfield overrun and a star striker simply strolling around waiting for someone to give him the ball. But the chaos isn’t the flaw in the system; it is the system. It’s baked in, priced in, hardwired. Ronaldo will solve the problems that Ronaldo creates. Ronaldo will restore the supremacy that Ronaldo has helped to surrender. And if that sounds like a recipe for a team powered by chance, vibes and pure, blind circumstance: well, that’s just the genius in action.