MANCHESTER, England — Only time will tell what Manchester United’s win over Atalanta — having battled back from two goals down to win 3-2 — actually means. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will hope it becomes a turning point after a miserable month of four defeats in seven games rather than a Jose Mourinho-against-Newcastle United moment.
Amid intense speculation surrounding Mourinho’s job in October 2019, United battled back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. While the Portuguese coach lived to fight another day, he was sacked eight weeks later.
If nothing else, three goals in the second half against Atalanta at least means United have some semblance of momentum ahead of Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday. It may be that they simply have to try to out-score Jurgen Klopp’s team because it would be a minor miracle if they managed to stop Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and the rest after conceding six goals in five days.
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Afterwards, Solskjaer came out fighting, first rejecting a suggestion that the players had shown they remain behind their manager and then fiercely backing match winner Cristiano Ronaldo after criticism of the 36-year-old’s work rate.
“Don’t even start,” snapped Solskjaer when it was suggested the players had shown they are still playing for him. “Don’t disrespect the players. They play for Man United and they know they’re the luckiest men in the world. I said that to them tonight. They’re the luckiest men in the world, the 11 and the subs are the ones who can play for Man United and that’s what so many millions of boys and girls want to do.
“If anyone wants to criticise Ronaldo for attitude and work rate just watch the game today. I said make sure we get the next goal and as long as we did not concede the next goal I knew we’d win the game.”
Solskjaer’s fiery post-match interview was a stronger defence than his team managed all night. There have been lots of worrying elements to the performances this season but none more so than their inability to defend. Solskjaer dropped Paul Pogba to the bench, explaining before kickoff it was because his team had been “too open,” but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
Atalanta are good at scoring goals — they were the top scorers in Serie A last season — but it helps when the opposition want to lend a hand, too. They couldn’t have expected much when Josip Ilicic clipped a hopeful pass into space down the right but 10 seconds later the ball was in the net, Mario Pasalic nipping in ahead of Scott McTominay to tap in Davide Zappacosta’s cross.
Just once in their past 20 games have United managed to keep a clean sheet, and they are without one at Old Trafford since the middle of March. The run of 12 home games is their worst for nearly 60 years. Not only can United not defend from open play, they can’t defend set pieces either, and before the first half was over Merih Demiral out-jumped both Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire to head in Teun Koopmeiners’ corner.
It was almost impressive that United found a way to concede two goals as poor as the four they shipped at Leicester City on Saturday. Demiral’s goal was the fourth time Solskjaer’s team have conceded from a set piece in the past five games, and for the first time ever United went in at half-time of a Champions League tie two goals down.
United fans who began the game singing “Ole’s at the wheel” were booing when the half-time whistle went. It quickly turned to chants of “red army” as the players went down the tunnel but the supporters in the Stretford End had already made their feelings known after a disastrous 45 minutes.
“We conceded two bad goals,” said Maguire afterwards, in something of an understatement. “We knew coming in at half-time the next goal would be crucial. I think in the end we deserved the victory. Yes, we made it difficult, but it’s a great victory in the end. We showed great togetherness in the dressing room at half-time. The fans gave us great energy and we got the result they deserved.”
“They had two chances and scored two goals and that has to stop,” added Solskjaer.
For all United’s problems at the back, they still have a collection of the best attacking players in the world, and in the second half they worked out Atalanta’s defence was as bad as their own.
Rashford, sharp on his first start since undergoing shoulder surgery in the summer, got one back with his second goal in two games, and after McTominay had hit the post, Maguire swept in the equaliser at the back post. Bruno Fernandes, poor at Leicester, created both goals and Solskjaer will hope it signals a return to form for the midfielder ahead of Sunday.
David De Gea still needed to make his now-weekly world-class save to deny Duvan Zapata, but the winner was reserved for who else but Ronaldo? United’s No. 7 powered a header into the net from a Shaw cross.
The noise almost blew the roof off Old Trafford, and just like that, “Ole’s at the wheel” was back. There is still a desperation among the match-going supporters for the Norwegian to do well.
The chant will be back again on Sunday. The question, though, is for how long? Papering over the cracks or a corner turned, only time will tell.