Nothing sums up the conflicting moods at Manchester United right now better than Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand debating the merits of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s wildly erratic team following their dramatic Champions League comeback against Atalanta.
In the red corner, Ferdinand was upbeat after seeing United recover from two goals down to win 3-2 ahead of Sunday’s showdown with Liverpool at Old Trafford.
‘You have to grab on to the emotion of a result like that,’ he said. ‘I’m not getting carried away, but you have to enjoy that.’
Cristiano Ronaldo (R) scored another winner as Manchester United came back to beat Atalanta
Nothing sums up the conflicting moods at the club better than Paul Scholes (L) and Rio Ferdinand (R)
In the, er, other red corner, Scholes was less enthused. ‘People say I’m miserable, but I looked at that game thinking about Liverpool,’ he told BT Sport.
‘I kept going back to that first half, and it would be disastrous if we play like that against Liverpool.
‘United will look at this game and think they are cured, but they’re not.’
Did United’s win merely paper over the cracks after a fourth defeat in seven games at Leicester last Saturday, or are they really heading in the right direction under Solskjaer?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s wildly erratic team face a showdown with Liverpool next at Old Trafford
So much has been said and written about the importance of United’s DNA since Solskjaer returned to the club, yet it is ironic that nearly three years later his team still lack a discernible identity.
Even if the manager knew his best team – and that’s debatable – he wouldn’t know which United are going to turn up from one game to the next.
It appears as though Solskjaer is struggling to piece together the various components of his squad, and the new signings made this summer have only complicated the picture.
As a result, United look even less cohesive than last season. A team who aren’t playing as a team.
They were meant to be transitioning from a counter-attacking side into one capable of dominating games, but right now it is hard to identify a particular style or shape. Too often, United have had to rely on individual brilliance to get them out of a hole and that will only take them so far.
‘United are missing a bit of the overall tactics,’ Jesper Blomqvist, who won the Champions League alongside Solskjaer in 1999, said on Thursday.
‘It takes some time to settle all the players in the team and find the right way of playing. They have to find a pattern of play, a tactical way.’
United have struggled recently with injuries to Harry Maguire (left) and Raphael Varane
Despite criticism of Solskjaer, support for the manager within Old Trafford remains steadfast.
No manager is bullet-proof but it would take a calamitous run for United to change course now.
At a time when Steve Bruce’s slow demise at Newcastle has been painful to watch, that kind of reassurance cannot be overstated.
There is a lot of goodwill towards the Norwegian and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward would be reluctant to rock the boat in his remaining months in office.
United face Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal in five of their next six league games, but Solskjaer has a knack of navigating his way through tough periods like this.
What the long-term future holds if he fails to deliver a trophy again this season remains to be seen.
United targeted a centre back and right winger in the summer, and there were no complaints at all when they signed Raphael Varane from Real Madrid and Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund.
However, there is a strong argument that the need for a defensive midfielder was even greater and one wasn’t forthcoming.
Those concerns have been confirmed in the early part of the season as Solskjaer has struggled to strike a balance between his attack and defence, which appear to have become disconnected. It’s clear he can’t trust Paul Pogba in a defensive midfield role, but using the Frenchman wide on the left means leaving out a winger.
There are no shortage of those at Old Trafford following Sancho’s arrival, leaving Solskjaer with an embarrassment of attacking riches – and the problem of fitting them in without making his team top-heavy.
It’s clear the Norwegian boss can’t trust Paul Pogba (above) in a defensive midfield role
Sancho hasn’t done nearly enough to justify his £73million price tag. The return of Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, has created problems of its own.
That may seem churlish after his second Champions League winner in a row against Atalanta made it six goals in eight games but, at 36, he is never going to be a player willing to press high or track back as much as his team-mates.
Ronaldo’s unexpected arrival has also done Edinson Cavani few favours. The Uruguay striker had to be persuaded to sign on for a second season at United but has lost his No 7 shirt and his place in the team, starting just one game so far.
Even Solskjaer’s harshest critics would not dispute that the club have made progress under him.
A lot of the dead wood has been cleared out and better players brought in. The team – and squad – are stronger, even though United aren’t yet the sum of their parts.
Ronaldo’s return has largely been a success and energised the club, despite the odd strop.
David de Gea has re-established himself as the No 1 goalkeeper with a string of good performances, Luke Shaw has been playing his best football for United, and Marcus Rashford is ready to kick on after scoring two goals in as many games on his return from injury.
Overall, the club are in better shape than when Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho.
David de Gea has re-established himself as the No 1 goalkeeper with a string of good displays
Just one clean sheet in the last 20 games tells us all we need to know about United’s defensive instability.
Equally worrying is the number of set-piece goals they continue to concede, despite bringing in Eric Ramsay from Chelsea to join an ever-growing coaching staff in the summer for that specific purpose.
Two of Leicester’s goals came from set-pieces and Merih Demiral headed Atalanta’s second from a corner.
As Bruno Fernandes pointed out on Wednesday, United need to defend better as a team
Varane is a quality signing and his groin injury has come at a bad time. Harry Maguire was also said to be struggling with the ankle injury he sustained at the end of last season before picking up a calf strain.
But United need to defend better as a team, as Bruno Fernandes pointed out on Thursday.
‘We have to concede less and score more,’ said Fernandes. ‘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.’
Part of that problem is United’s failure to press opponents in the way Liverpool have done so successfully under Jurgen Klopp and City under Pep Guardiola.
Only three teams – Norwich, Newcastle and Brighton – have pressed less as a team than United this season, and it was shocking how easily Leicester passed through them.
Solskjaer was all about hard work when he came into the job, but his players aren’t putting enough pressure on opponents, raising concerns that he is being too soft on them.
‘If Pep and Klopp were in charge of this team, I think the front four would work a lot harder,’ said Sportsmail columnist Peter Crouch. ‘There’s no way they would get away with it. I don’t think Ole will upset players.’
Marcus Rashford meanwhile is ready to kick on after scoring two goals in as many games
If nothing else, Old Trafford certainly isn’t dull these days and that was more than you could say for life under Mourinho and Louis van Gaal.
Raucous nights like Wednesday became a thing of the past and Solskjaer’s United can’t be faulted for entertainment value – even the rather sombre Scholes has to admit that.
‘We watched boring Van Gaal and Mourinho teams, sending you to sleep,’ he said. ‘So to go from that to this is great.’