Desperately needed and preferably before the visit of Manchester City on Saturday: the vital percentage that could yet transform Manchester United’s expensively assembled footballers into the forces they are billed as and give the besieged Ole Gunnar Solskjær what he craves – stability and control.
As Bonfire Night nears this is a dominant strand in the tale of United’s dislocated season. An off‑the-boil team manned by misfiring players who when not being beaten 5-0 (by Liverpool), 4‑2 (Leicester City), 1-0 (Aston Villa), 2-1 (Young Boys), and 1‑0 (West Ham), thrash Tottenham 3-0, Leeds 5-1 and Newcastle 4-1, while having to rely on last-minute goals in Europe,in a 2-1 win against Villareal and the 3-2 victory and 2-2 draw with Atalanta.
These last three were possible only due to the one-man salvage act of Cristiano Ronaldo, a remarkable footballer who revelled in producing a remarkable late show for each of these strikes. The 36-year-old is a phenomenon but he should not have to heave United around on his shoulders virtually each time they kick off.
What Ronaldo requires is simple to identify but is not being delivered from those who line up alongside him: consistent eight- and nine‑out‑of‑10 performances.
This is a test of Solskjær’s management. Whatever the Norwegian did last season has been missing and by the time City arrive he has to rediscover how to elevate players so they match, at least, that standard. Last season Solskjær oversaw a reliable core who turned it on in enough games to take United to a second-place league finish and the Europa League final, which was lost via the penalty shootout lottery to Villarreal.
In this cadre were Bruno Fernandes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani (when injury free), Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire. Now, only Ronaldo, Greenwood, and David de Gea can be included: two outfield players and the goalkeeper is not enough.
Shaw, Wan-Bissaka and Maguire are part of a rearguard which is a liability, with only two clean sheets in 23 games stretching back to April. The engine-room artistry and mettle of Pogba and McTominay have mutated into situations vacant where elite midfielders should be; Cavani has become peripheral and Rashford continues to ease his way back from a shoulder injury. Add underwhelming contributions from Victor Lindelöf, Fred, Nemanja Matic, Jadon Sancho, who cost £73m in the summer and finds himself in the Donny van de Beek category of player non grata, and United are akin to an ever‑tiring man treading water who may go under soon.
A prevailing view states that Ronaldo, who has five goals in the first four Champions League group games (a club record), is the problem. If this is correct of United’s top scorer, who has nine strikes in 11 appearances, then what is Maguire? For the captain to impress he needs the extra fraction present in his game. Otherwise a mid-range talent is bedevilled by the lax positional sense that allowed Atalanta’s second goal on Tuesday, a clumsy touch and the dither of a man confused as to whether he must play to rediscover his best or in doing so is merely descending to new depths.
Shaw has forgotten defending’s basic tenets – example: do not play the opposition onside, as for Naby Keïta’s opener for Liverpool – and the marauding runs that offer United a different dimension, and Wan‑Bissaka could use a confidence boost. There was a moment in the first half at the Gewiss Stadium when the right-back juggled the ball, pirouetted, swished infield and scattered the Atalanta defence. It illustrated a glittering array of skill and showed what the 23-year-old is capable of. But after that he vanished.
If City are beaten on Saturday United will draw level on points with the champions. This is both remarkable, given their form, and a particularly big if. When discussing their Champions League group, which Solskjær’s side lead on goal difference from Villarreal, Shaw could also be speaking generally.
“We need to take charge, we need that confidence and belief that we can and should be doing it,” the left-back told MUTV. “And of course, we know that we still need to improve. We know that just because we beat Spurs 3-0 and we got an OK point [at Atalanta] we can’t just relax and get comfortable. “We need to keep improving. We know that as a team and there’s much more to come with the talent we have in this squad. So, we need to keep focused, keep improving and getting better and better.”
Ronaldo, too, spoke of the need to be better, after his latest Roy of the Rovers routine. He did not mean himself, of course. This is a message for the majority of his teammates – and, surely, for Solskjær. They and the manager need to sharpen up quickly or United will fail. Starting against City.