Football Features

“Doubt him at your peril, he is THE man” – Five things learned as Man Utd come from two-down to beat Atalanta 3-2

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:36, 20 October 2021 | Updated: 20:29, 24 November 2022

In a stunning night of football, Manchester United came from two down to win 3-2 against Atalanta in the Champions League.

What did we learn?

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1. Cristiano in the middle

Cristiano Ronaldo is Mr. Champions League. The greatest goalscorer in the history of the competition. However he is also 36 years-old. What this means is that where he could once take up residence in wide areas before raiding centrally to get his goals, nowadays that simply isn’t possible. Not if the team wants to play functionally, anyway.

Whenever Cristiano would play wide, United lacked threat. However when he moved into central areas, between the width of the penalty box, he came alive. His touches became more dangerous, his play more intelligent. And of course that’s where he does what he does best: score goals. Like when, with 10 minutes to go, he roses to slam home Luke Shaw’s cross and win the game.

His third goal in three Champions League games so far this season. His second late game-winner. He has 137 goals in total and no one doubts that he can still be so dangerous; but only in the middle. The trick is convincing him to stay in these central areas for the entire match; if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can pull it off, then he can get many years of quality play out of his no. 7.

2. Demiral the wounded warrior

Merih Demiral was repeatedly hobbling around Old Trafford for the first-half of the match. A more cautious coach would have taken him off, but Gian Piero Gasperini was happy to let him play on. In part because he was defending so fantastically well.

Demiral was at the heart a much-changed Atalanta back-line but repeatedly denied United’s advances with his defending. He made four clearances in just one half and although he had just the one tackle, it was a sensational last ditch tackle as he chased Marcus Rashford back and stopped him getting a clean shot off on goal.

Oh, and he scored the second goal of the game with a towering header. He was even limping after scoring, and it felt like he was going to come off. But he persevered, and United could not find a way past Atalanta while he was on the pitch.

3. Bruno Fernandes is THE MAN

Bruno Fernandes was as bad as he has been all season in the first-half. The 4-2-4 shape did him no favours at all as he was far too removed from the build-up phase where he is absolutely key. It looked like if anyone was to be hauled off, it could be him.

But second-half, Fernandes dropped about 5-10 yards deeper and suddenly the player you thought was out of it was back on it. Fernandes produced two outrageous assists to haul United from 0-2 down to 2-2. His second, a long deep cross to Harry Maguire was nice, but his outside of the boot pass bisecting the entire Atalanta defence to play Marcus Rashford in was superhuman.

The Portuguese created eight chances on the night, the most anyone has managed in a single game so far this season. He also holds the record for the Premier League (10, against Aston Villa). His record chances created tonight is a record for Manchester United in a single Champions League game as well. Doubt him at your peril, Bruno Fernandes is the man. The best Manchester United player and one of the two best in the Premier League full-stop.

4. The gamble of 4-2-4

Before the game Ole Gunnar Solskjaer proudly announced that Manchester United were playing 4-2-4 tonight. That’s never a good idea to do from the start, as it’s so open and direct that it leaves you open to get absolutely raided on the break. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened in the first 45 minutes at Old Trafford.

As Paul Scholes said at half-time, with United 0-2 down; “it’s the formation that’s been bad. Ole said 4-2-4, I don’t care who them two players are in the midfield, when you’re playing against a European team, a good European team, you’re gonna get destroyed. Neither wide player is running back, Bruno Fernandes is making the odd effort to get in and help them, but they will get destroyed. If Manchester United were playing a good team here, a really good team, they could be looking at four or five.”

However Scholes also said that Manchester United could win the game; “the formation makes it a gamble.” And sure enough, with Atalanta’s second string defence tiring and missing their leader in Demiral, and with Bruno Fernandes dropping a bit deeper (making it more of a 4-2-1-3 to be honest) the gamble began to pay off as United hunted down the goals they wanted.

The gamble of the 4-2-4 matched up well against Atalanta’s intensely open style and we should see it again in Bergamo, but this is not a gamble Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would want to try against less cavalier sides.

5. Solskjaer gets his win but the cracks are huge

What. A. Win.

An awful first-half was spun into a magical second period as minor tactical tweaks and his key players stepping up saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men fight their way back to win another massive European game.

Marcus Rashford’s movement was electric all game long but his finishing in the first-half was way off as he wasted 2/3 great chances. However in the second-half the Englishman kept his cool to slot the Red Devils’ first goal and give them hope in the game. He now has two goals in two games since his return from injury and adds such a potent dimension to the United attack with his pace and intelligent movement.

Then Harry Maguire, who had been so bad in the first-half, stepped up and scored the equaliser with an absurdly cool finish at the back-post. Seriously, you have to see the goal; the coolness and technique on display from the United skipper was worth of any striker on the pitch. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t flinch, and buried a very difficult chance. He also stiffened at the back and along with Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s huge block was a key force on keeping United’s sheet clean in the second-half.

Then after Bruno Fernandes’ two assists, Luke Shaw stepped up and curved a gorgeous cross in for Cristiano to win it. From 0-2 down to 3-2 up and Old Trafford was rocking and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was praising his singing section of fans as the best in the world and insisting that his players were “lucky” because they got to represent Manchester United, all while Robbie Savage belted out “VIVA RONALDO!!”

Paul Scholes again appeared as the lone voice of reason amid all the hype, pointing out that United “conceded so many chances,” which is true. Atalanta waltzed through them with comedic ease. The Englishman then added “Now if you’re playing against quality players, there’s no way you’re winning that game, not a chance you win that game.”

Scholes referenced United’s brutal upcoming fixture against Liverpool; “everyone will get a little bit carried away with this euphoria now, will he play that way on Sunday against Liverpool? It was that brilliant, it was that good, everyone smiling, everyone happy. Go and do that on Sunday against Liverpool, see what happens. Imagine Jurgen Klopp watching that at home? Rubbing his hands.”

“You can’t get too carried away,” he concluded with. And he’s right, as much as the fans can go home joyous, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows that he must set his team up better, because if he brings that kind of tactical nonsense to Jurgen Klopp’s Reds then he will get absolutely devoured by one of the very best sides around right now. Atalanta killed them on the break in the first-half and even in the second period had a couple of great chances to score only to be denied by David de Gea.

For all the talk about “taking this win on;” that’s what was said after the Villarreal win as well, which came off the back of two straight defeats. But the last gasp nature and excitement of that European win did nothing to help United against Everton and Leicester, where they took one point from six and were lucky to get that, because all it did was paper over the cracks. Just like this win has. Manchester United have major structural problems and all the dramatic late winners won’t change that.