A week is a long time in football. Just seven or so days ago, Manchester United were in the middle of the biggest crisis in their modern history after losing 5-0 at home to Liverpool.
For the whole world, it looked like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be fired as coach and replaced by the unemployed Antonio Conte.
But United chose to stand firm when many other clubs would instead have chosen to turn. Solskjaer remained in charge and his tactical adjustments helped them to a 3-0 victory over Tottenham on Saturday.
And then the plot thickened.
That result was the drop for Nuno Espirito Santo in Spurs, and he was fired on Monday. On Tuesday morning, Conte was revealed as his successor.
It’s an appointment that has stimulated the north London fan base, which puts Spurs – just five points behind fourth-placed West Ham, still just two behind Man Utd – in an excellent position to turn their season around and qualify for the Champions League. One of the top three coaches in world football is now responsible for one of United’s direct competitors.
With his most likely replacement out and a win this weekend, it seemed to have diminished at Solskjaer. And then Manchester United Football Club got to play a game of football against a half good team again.
The Red Devils were second best during large parts of their 2-2 draw against Atalanta on Tuesday night, with the support of Cristiano Ronaldo who saved a point and secured the qualification for the last 16 remnants in United’s hands.
Had they fallen to defeat (which was probably what they deserved), United would have been in a scrap to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League for a second season in a row.
Hell, they’ll still be in one if they fail to beat Villarreal later this month. Once again, the “winners” in the Premier League’s summer transfer window have looked incredibly overwhelming.
Atalanta work on a budget that is a fraction of United’s – it’s comparable to most Championship teams, let alone Champions League teams – but they showed their history draped visitors how a functioning football team is meant to play. Solskjaer admitted after the match that United only had a real moment where they looked like the team they should be.
Ronaldo also stressed the need for time for United to give in and adapt. But there are still few signs of progress for a team that is in “win now” mode.
During the summer, United signed a five-time winner of the Ballon d’Or to lead the line, one of the best midfielders of their generation and one of the brightest young stars in the game. It’s not like they’re rebuilding, tearing up the core and starting over – this was meant to bridge the gap and become genuine title challengers.
But they will need to reach top form to even avoid the Europa League this season and next.