September 30, 2021
'We are a proper team,' insists Solskjaer after Ronaldo rescues Man Utd

Another late goal, another late win, another stodgy performance at Old Trafford. But Solskjaer has a plan, we think, just probably not the one he intended. Meanwhile Chelsea’s season has hit an early stumbling block, while Juventus can get theirs going. Oh, and Barcelona are in serious trouble. Time to call it a crisis? You bet.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who remains manager of Manchester United for the moment, has created the Magic Ring Doughnut. It’s heavily sugared. It’s got a big old hole in the middle. And it’s extremely unhealthy in all sorts of exciting ways.Last night, Manchester United beat Villarreal. This is because they have a lot of good players, with more good players on the bench, and ring doughnuts are delicious. At the same time, for 70 minutes or so, Manchester United were given something of a chasing by the team currently 11th in La Liga. This is because ring doughnuts are stupid. Put some more dough in there. Then some jam. Or some custard.Instead, Manchester United have a defence and an attack, a left flank and a right flank, and nothing to stitch all of that together. This is why they so often look like they’re being outplayed. In a way, this Champions League group is perfectly designed to make United look tactically vacant: Young Boys, Villarreal and Atalanta are all, in their different ways, extremely well-coached sides. They have systems. They have plans. They have midfields.United deal in moments, good and bad. At one point Alex Telles, tight on the left touchline, looked up and crossed the ball. It shot directly forwards off his foot and thumped into the corner flag. Some minutes later, he met a looping cross on the volley and fully scholesed the ball into the net. All human life is here, in the Magic Ring Doughnut.Of course, there is a difference between being outplayed and actually losing. If the former doesn’t regularly lead to the latter, it can be waved away, at least for a time. Just a bad look. It’s a results business. United won the game thanks to quality substitutions and relentless persistence; Villareal lost because, as Pau Torres put it afterwards, they weren’t clever enough not to.

Football’s exchange rate is often very, very poor. A side can play a lot of good football and get very few goals for it. United’s current iteration seems to be the inverse: anti-system, pro-chaos, pace and moments, quality ingredients, hot oil, sugar, maybe a bit of cinnamon. A walk by the seaside, grease soaking into the bag. Everybody having a great time. Ole’s not at the wheel, though the shape is right. He’s at the doughnut.

Two defeats in a row. Two defeats in a row. And not a goal scored in either of them. Terrible news for anybody that had decided Chelsea were going to stroll everything this season. And by “anybody”, we mean “The Warm-Up”. Looks like we were a little hasty there.Obviously, losing to Manchester City and then Juventus isn’t exactly a disaster, much less a crisis, however weird Juventus have been this season. But when two defeats turn up and share this much in the making, it at least gives a side something to think about.The attack, for starters. When they’re good, this version Chelsea exist just on the right side of defensive: solid and well-structured, but with enough imagination through the team and the system to make the chances they need. Not so last weekend, and not so last night. In the absence of Mason Mount — whose reputation grows when he plays and grows more when he doesn’t — the attack has deflated into something predictable. Juventus kept Chelsea in front of them, blocked everything, and asked the defending champions to find something special. And they couldn’t, not quite.So Tuchel will head back to his tactics board and apply his big brain to the problem, which we suspect he’ll quite enjoy. On the other side, we’re guessing that Max Allegri will be very pleased with the win, but even happier with the big, round, beautiful “0”. Leo Bonucci was everywhere, in traditional fashion. Georgio Chiellini celebrated one late block like a veteran Italian defender celebrating a late block: that’s not a lazy comparison, there’s just nothing else quite like it. The kind of celebration that can kick start a season.