Man Utd 3-2 Atalanta: Solskjaer turns it around under pressure – but which Man Utd will face Liverpool?

Manchester United players react to the full-time whistle on Wednesday
Cristiano Ronaldo scored the third goal against Atalanta – the second time in as many Champions League games he has netted a late comeback winner

The reaction to Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Atalanta was just about as confused as trying to sum up Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s present status as manager.

Solskjaer thought they “played well” in the first half. Former United midfielder Paul Scholes described the same 45 minutes as “a major worry” and a period that would see them rolled over by Liverpool when they meet on Sunday.

Fellow pundit and former United defender Rio Ferdinand praised the “intensity”, saying “there is no better game to roll into the weekend,” while captain Harry Maguire admitted his side conceded “bad goals” but also “showed great togetherness”.

Little wonder no-one has a clue what United team is going to turn up against Jurgen Klopp’s side, and that includes Solskjaer himself.

A pattern continued, though, in the latest of these famous European nights at Old Trafford.

Just when it seems Solskjaer’s back is against the wall and his status is becoming weak, he and his players produce a result to release the pressure.

It happened against Liverpool in October 2019 when, after a run of five games without a win, United dominated Klopp’s men and became the only side in the first two-thirds of the season to take a point off them.

Two months later, they had won one in four, and then defeated Tottenham and Manchester City to quell growing disgruntlement.

Last season, United had won once in five games before they went to City and won again.

Prior to this Wednesday’s game, they had won one in five – and that was a lucky success against Villarreal.

So, when widespread booing from a frustrated Old Trafford crowd tumbled out of the stands at the end of the first half, with his team 2-0 down and having conceded the type of routine goals that have become familiar in recent matches, Solskjaer seemed like a man on the edge.

Just over an hour later, Solskjaer was being serenaded by the “singing section” in the corner between the Stretford End and South Stand. They refused to go home until the manager – who had applauded them as he headed for the dressing room at the break – came out to fulfil his TV commitments and acknowledge them for a second time.

“This corner here are the best in the world,” he said. “There is a bit of time when you are down as a supporter but you keep going.”

But when the dust settles, there must be a sense of trepidation among those same fans about the problems that lie ahead, first against Liverpool on Sunday, then at Tottenham and at home to Manchester City on 6 November, as United try to stabilise their Premier League form, which has faltered alarmingly.

Asked if the thrilling comeback showed the United players were playing for him, Solskjaer replied sharply: “Don’t even start. Don’t disrespect the players.”

On matchwinner Ronaldo – following up weekend analysis of his attacking players’ lack of pressing in the 4-2 defeat to Leicester – Solskjaer suggested: “If anyone wants to criticise him for work rate and attitude, just watch this game and how he runs around.”

Ferdinand added: “If anyone had any doubt will these players run, hustle and fight for Ole – yes they will. People were questioning were they willing to run trough brick walls for Ole but they showed that.”

Solskjaer suggested the first-half performance “wasn’t worthy” of the 2-0 scoreline at the interval – and that “was the message at half-time”.

“We need to defend key moments better, we know that. It is perceived we are so inconsistent in performance when you concede easy goals. We need to eradicate it.”

The big question for Solskjaer is, can that happen? Can it happen when he commits four players to attack in a bold 4-2-4 formation, as he did again against Atalanta – despite leaving Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho on the bench?

Fred and Scott McTominay were overworked in the centre of midfield and, especially now Raphael Varane is out for “a few weeks”, United seem to lack the personnel to cope in defence.

Amid the euphoria, it has to be recognised if David de Gea had not made his superb double save midway through the second half, there would have been no stirring comeback to celebrate.

“Against a proper team, that would be disastrous,” Scholes told BT Sport. “Jurgen Klopp will be rubbing his hands together.”

Like many of his team-mates, Bruno Fernandes mixed the sublime with the ridiculous. His pass to release Marcus Rashford for the crucial first goal in United’s comeback was sensational. But too often routine passes failed to find their men, putting his team-mates in trouble.

“That’s the way it goes with trying to make the passes,” said the Portuguese. “Some work, some don’t.”

He could have used the same comment about the entire United team: that’s the way it goes, sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t.

Instead, he summed it up in an even more basic way.

“We have to concede less and score more,” he said. “We can’t just blame the defenders. We train to attack and defend as a team. Individual mistakes happen, we have to just try to understand what is wrong and do it better.”

It sounds so simple. But as he approaches three years in the job, Solskjaer seems no nearer finding the answers.

As a consequence, no-one is any nearer knowing which United team will turn up at Old Trafford this weekend.

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