Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford was a ridiculous, scarcely believable success - but what his presence means for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United project remains unclear.
Signed instead of a central midfielder, the club have gambled that his individual genius can make up for those problems in the middle of the park. The story of Saturday’s 4-1 win could be used to argue the point either way.
Twice Ronaldo grabbed this game and bent it to his will, scoring crucial goals that opened up a match that had threatened to be another example of United looking a little fuzzy against a deep-lying defence. Twice he showed United he can be a talismanic figure to turn dour draws into wins.
Then again, Newcastle are never particularly difficult opponents for Man Utd, who scored seven goals against Steve Bruce’s side last season. Did Ronaldo really make the difference, or did he just steal the headlines in a game defined just as much by Paul Pogba’s performance and Bruno Fernandes’s brilliant second-half strike?
More significantly, Man Utd’s central midfield once again looked a little ropey, with gaps appearing on either side of Pogba and Nemanja Matic as Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron counter-attacked menacingly for the first 80 minutes.
Throughout the Solskjaer era a lack of tactical detail has undermined the project, preventing orchestrated attacks progressing through the lines and leaving them open to breaks like Newcastle’s today.
Solskjaer’s answer is to go all-in on the Galactico style and a hope that the brute force of his superstars can win the moments, reducing the lack of sophistication to irrelevance.
It might just work, because for a manager hooking his tenure on the ideas of Sir Alex Ferguson (attacking in waves of pressure, taking advantage of the fortress of Old Trafford) it is certainly helpful to be able to select a hero from that era as his centre-forward. It is no coincidence the atmosphere today was more buoyant than at any point since Ferguson’s retirement.
Ronaldo’s return looks set to dominate the narrative of the Premier League for large portions of this season (on today’s showing at least) and although it is too early to say whether his goals will make up for the flaws in Solskjaer’s tactical system there were glimpses of promise that Ronaldo may just solve the problem in an unexpected way.
He frequently dropped off the front line to link the play, popping up between the lines and demanding the ball from his team-mates. Such is his furious energy and on-field charisma it was no surprise that Harry Maguire and Nemanja Matic obeyed, playing quick vertical passes to the feet of Ronaldo, who would then play a clever one-touch pass out wide.
Through Ronaldo’s sheer force of will he upped the tempo of a team that so often falls into sleepy patterns, encouraging sharper, progressive passes than we ordinarily see. It was only a minor note from the game but something well worth keeping an eye on.
That 100% record always looked a little bit dodgy. Tottenham’s defensive sturdiness provided a solid foundation to give the Spurs fans optimism – and a single defeat, defined by an unforced error and a red card, should not change that – but there has been very little going forward.
Spurs were looking clunky in those first three games, producing just 36 shots in total and a combined xG of 4.06.
And so it is not entirely surprising that things unravelled on Saturday. An xG of 0.09 captured Tottenham’s lack of direction, something for which Nuno Esperito Santo must take the blame.
His use of a lopsided 4-3-3, in which Dele Alli sat behind Harry Kane to leave the left flank entirely vacated, was a bizarre decision that left Spurs unbalanced and without the necessary width.
Time and time again Nuno’s midfield three had no forward options, instead forced to play awkward sideways balls, and with Kane looking unfit Lucas Moura was left to drag the team up the pitch all by himself. Here was the fourth example – but the first to gain attention – of Nuno’s team lacking any specific instructions for how to navigate periods of possession.
We know Spurs will look to play conservative counter-attacking football this season. We didn’t expect them to so closely resemble a Jose Mourinho team at this early stage.
In Nuno’s defence, that lack of direction was largely forced by Crystal Palace’s aggressive pressing.
They never let the visitors settle on the ball, pushing up from goal kicks and launching into challenges in the middle third to reflect the dramatic tactical shift imposed by new manager Patrick Vieira. Palace’s confrontational defensive shape was the key to their victory, alongside another superb performance from Conor Gallagher.
Gallagher had everything the Tottenham midfield lacked: a silky arrogance on the ball, an ability to evade the press, and a forward-thinking mindset that saw him burst into dangerous areas.
He ran this game. Until Spurs find their own central midfielder in Gallagher’s mould they will struggle to impose themselves on the opposition.