With nine minutes to play on a thrilling, increasingly wild night at Old Trafford Cristiano Ronaldo made one of those half-runs, the run that isn’t quite the run, then stretched his stride as he picked up the flight of the ball from Luke Shaw’s boot on the left flank.
This is one of the things Ronaldo does so well, the algebra of flight, speed, timing, gravity, contact, the millions of equations and muscle‑mnemonics that go into making these moments work.
Two quick steps and a press with his right foot and Ronaldo was clear of Merih Demiral and up into the Old Trafford air. Things begin to happen when Ronaldo does this. Time stretches. Objects, bodies, pressure all seem to fall away, and suddenly in that snapshot he’s the only person present, alone in all that air, with the game in his hands.
What a brilliant, open, rollicking game this was. And yet for long periods in the first half, as United went 2-0 down en route to a 3-2 win, there was something funereal about it. By the end it felt like an anatomy of this strange red machine: so gloriously brimful of talent, but so brittle, so prone to collapse, the one-punch knockout artist who seems to spend long periods of each encounter gassed out on his feet. It was thrilling and cinematic. But where exactly is this leading?
Ole Gunnar Solskjær had spoken before kick-off about stiffening the spine of his team, not being so easy to play against. Which sounds like an excellent idea. But then, he has also been in the job for almost three years. Best not to be too hasty with these things.
This was Solskjær’s team of workers and runners, with the McTominay-Fred axis replacing the more decorative pretensions of Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho. It made sense. In Gian Piero Gasperini he was facing off against a kind of anti-Ole, a coach who is not a star but who is obsessed with the collective, the mechanics of team play. Atalanta are about pain. This team will examine your spleen, heart, guts, legs and all other related bodily parts. And it must be said that this odd-job United rose to that challenge, but not before they had seemed ready to sink.
With three minutes gone there was the spectacle of four white shirts running down Bruno Fernandes in his own area. Atalanta knew what they were doing here. Every time Aaron Wan-Bissaka or either of the midfield two took the ball the press was launched, drawing hasty, fretful passes. And Atalanta took the lead with the simplest of goals. First Luis Muriel ran on to a quick free-kick. There was no pressure, no resistance. United’s players seemed curious, present but not involved. The cross found Mario Pasalic in front of goal with time to plant the ball easily into the opposite corner.
With 28 minutes gone it was 2-0, a right-wing corner headed straight in by Demiral. Harry Maguire was the nearest defender but his was systems failure, a shared congealment.
United surged back. Even at moments such as these some parts of the team seem to spark and hum with life. Mason Greenwood clearly loves playing with Ronaldo. He always wants to interchange, to bounce off Ronaldo, to pick his brains.
Ronaldo himself came here with two shots on target in his past four games. But he played well, linking nicely, moving well. He may no longer be in his imperial phase. But Ronaldo is a generous footballer and a team man. And he was ready, with nine minutes to go, as the game seemed to fall away, ready to be settled.
Nobody saw it coming in that first half. There were unanswerable questions all over the pitch. How is it possible to play two deep midfielders and still find yourself outnumbered? How is it possible for all three of forwards to underlap inside, and still leave the centre empty? Never mind the generalised talk of stiffening, where is the internal architecture of this team, the fine detail?
At half-time there were some vague boos around Old Trafford. It was more a kind of release. It can be painful to watch these games. Solskjær is an honourable man. His public presence will not allow him to show rage or pain or blame. He holds himself well, albeit with an air of damp, sorrowful bewilderment, the ghost of some barnacled ship’s captain, eyes wide, skinny hands clutching at the air.
And this was a gruelling watch, right up until the moment the game changed.
Marcus Rashford had endured a miserable first half. At the start of the second he found himself in space and simply slid the ball into the corner of the Atalanta goal with a neat little clip.
Suddenly this was an Ole-era kind of game, with spasms of action, moments of broken play, space for high craft players to seize the day off the cuff.
Maguire popped up unmarked and smashed the ball into the bottom corner. And then it came to that decisive moment.
The header from Ronaldo was almost a parody of Ronaldo-ness, the neck cocked, the muscles wrenched, the ball send bulleting down into the corner.
Even his landing was balletic, a moment of display. Nothing was solved here, nothing really learned. This was a win built out of magnificent moments – magnificent all the same, but still in the end just moments.