It feels like deja vu watching Manchester United and really, there’s nothing new to say about them. The holy grail 3-5-2 which helped them win at Tottenham on Saturday lasted barely half an hour at Atalanta, and already we’re back to square one. Again.
United lurch from high to low in such a consistent state of disarray that while Tuesday’s 2-2 draw in Bergamo ended somewhere in the middle, it still managed to raise the same old questions about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his team.
Defensively they were a mess and a total shadow of the side which denied Tottenham a single shot on target on Saturday, with individual performances so bad you have to question just how poor that Spurs side was.
The loss of Raphael Varane did not help in Italy but his absence did not force Harry Maguire into more of the sort of basic errors which have become worryingly commonplace since he was rushed back from injury last month, and ironically it was Eric Bailly – the man for whom he was brought back early to play ahead of – who far outshone him on the night.
Gary Neville is probably sick of describing his old side of playing “in moments” in his Sky Sports analyses but that’s exactly how they scored both of their goals in an otherwise familiarly insipid performance.
Without the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, whatever difficulties he may bring Solskjaer more generally, United would be in real trouble in Group F, and it needed two moments of magic from the striker to dig them out of a hole here, with the team performance still no closer to earning victory through any well-enacted gameplan.
Paul Pogba continues to flatter to deceive and was wasteful, even by his standards, against Atalanta before he was substituted by Solskjaer ahead of Scott McTominay, who had already been booked and was on a final warning from the referee. Perhaps the Frenchman is finally losing the patience of his manager, but why now? Why not the countless other times he has proven a liability?
These are all issues which have dogged United for so long, and just as Solskjaer moves onto the next ‘new dawn’, the club are left wondering whether it is another false one instead.
It must be frustrating for Manchester United fans that it is these same questions which come up time after time. Even more of a concern will be that they still don’t appear closer to any kind of definitive answers.
Just as Liverpool showed how Ronaldo’s magic can only do so much, so could Europe’s elite prove the same if United do make it into the last 16.
Chelsea laboured at times during their 1-0 win at Malmo but it was a really big night for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, playing in a deeper role. There is a feeling he is slowly pushing himself into Thomas Tuchel’s side on a regular basis.
The 25-year-old was making his first Champions League start for six years and he provided Chelsea with an extra dimension in their midfield, precisely what he was brought in to do.
Indeed, this was only his fourth start of the season, but he saw plenty of the ball in midfield, creating three chances, completing seven dribbles, and winning 14 duels – nearly twice as many as any other player.
“I was a bit worried in the first 15 minutes that he could find another gear,” said Tuchel of Loftus-Cheek afterwards. “But it was symbolic for him that he did not stay invisible.
“He needs to use his full potential and if he does this he can be a big part of the squad. This is why I am happy. The next step is to show consistency and push himself because he has so much potential.”
In the 32nd minute, we saw his Chelsea career in microcosm as a sublime piece of skill to lift the ball over the head of Bonke Innocent to start an attack was followed up by a miscued pass from a simple throw-in.
A lot of Tuchel’s squad have been out in the cold or out on loan at varying times of their career. Loftus-Cheek is the perfect example of that. During a fluctuating spell at Chelsea, his loan at a struggling Fulham last season suggested he was a long way off playing on this stage again.
But he showed the power, energy and drive which Jorginho and Matteo Kovacic don’t necessarily have. Crucially this season, the midfielder is managing to keep himself fit as in the past his body has broken down.
His last Chelsea goal was in a Europa League semi-final against Frankfurt in 2019, but it’s good to see him back challenging for those positions in midfield and Tuchel is aware of the player’s strengths as a good tactical option in either using three of two in this area.
Loftus-Cheek showed great guile on Tuesday but his end product was again lacking at times. That said, this was overall a positive night in which he showcased his ability and added to the belief he is embracing his opportunity under Tuchel.
He may not have taken the game by the scruff of its neck against Malmo, but more regular starts in the Premier League are in the offing. Having furthered his cause, he now has to produce the goods against more illustrious opposition.