As Cristiano Ronaldo prepared to enter the pitch with an hour gone at Stamford Bridge, having performed a dutiful kind of warm-up, meandering along the touchline like a venerable old don taking a stroll on the college lawn, a large book of laminated diagrams was waved in front of his nose.
Ronaldo, to his credit, made a show of having a look. Two decades into one of the great elite-level careers, CR7 is not too proud for your diagrams. But there might have been a temptation to grab that folder and scour the handwritten notes, to look for a sign, a prognosis of his own future in this peculiar, mid-season evolution.
The appointment of Ralf Rangnick as Manchester United interim manager is of course a mouthwatering plot twist. From a certain angle it even makes sense. Here is a team that doesn’t run enough. Here is a set-up that lacks a pattern, a unity of purpose, an intellectual validity. History isn’t culture. Memories aren’t a plan. Bring on the iron fist, the countdown clock, the footballer-as-machine-for-winning aesthetic of Dr Gegenpress.
Something has to go around here.
And on this occasion it was Ronaldo, who was dropped, not rested, for the first time since his return. It is hard not to see the hand of Ralf in that decision, whether directly or by osmosis through a coaching team eager to please the new man.
Rangnick, we hear loves youth energy, selflessness and constant running.
“The idea is a team without individuals,” he has said. The death of the ego, the notion of pure selfless team-play. Hm. About that.
What all this means for United’s biggest star is open to question. Ronaldo knows how to play that game, knows how to press, and will run for the team.
But he is 36 years old. He has pared his own role back to a razor edge over the last six years. Is there a player the new man would have been less likely to want to sign? There are so many fascinating angles to his arrival, it might seem a bit of a shame to spend his first remote working day dwelling on the absent superstar.
But Ronaldo’s role is utterly central to what happens to this team now, not just in terms of patterns of play, but the spirit of this enterprise, how seriously United are about allowing themselves to be bent to the will of their 63-year-old troubleshooter.
Rangnick, we hear, hates complacency above all, a refusal to change, the feeling of being stuck. Welcome, Ralf, to Alex Ferguson’s gaff, a club and a team still haunted by a manager who was appointed in 1986. If it is to work this does have to be a brutal kind of consultancy.
It would also be foolish to draw any firm conclusion from a single game against a sub-par Chelsea. But this was a gristly, wholly committed, all-for-one United performance. A 1-1 draw seemed fair enough by the end.
Chelsea had 21 shots to United’s two. But this was also a poor afternoon for Thomas Tuchel, whose team were blunt. Picking Timo Werner as a starting attacker against a team sitting this deep is one thing. Keeping him on the pitch after a performance of jittery, panicked, hit and miss: this seemed pretty weird. As did the decisions to leave Romelu Lukaku on the bench as cross after cross wanged its way across the United penalty area.
And something had changed for the white shirts as United kicked off at the Bridge, with a sense of new terms, fresh semesters, a little starchiness in the air. Stand straight. Fold your hands. The professor is in town.
At times there was a comedy to this whole set-up. Every lung busting run, every press felt like an audition, a message to the giant robot brain watching on his private monitor.
But United didn’t really press here. They sat deep and tried to break. This was in effect the Ole-ball team of last year, the phase when United would sit back and break quickly against better teams, a tactic that worked well at times. Carrick picked a three-man midfield bolt of Fred-McTominay-Matic.
And it worked too, on its own terms. For long periods they simply sat there, taking the elbows, staying upright, absorbing pressure that was consistent but diffuse. Early on Callum Hudson-Odoi walked through Aaron Wan-Bissaka like a man easing his way through a particularly limp beaded curtain, and hit David de Gea from 10 yards when he should have scored.
In the middle Werner would have had an open goal. But, well. OK. Ronaldo’s absence had made space for Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, players United will be hoping experience some kind of Rangnick defibrillation over the next few months. Those who know say that Sancho’s success in Dortmund was based around some very clear tactical instructions, a willingness to fulfil a brief.
Sancho scored an extraordinary goal to break the deadlock, seizing on Jorginho’s terrible touch and haring off with nothing in front of him except open green space. Stepping to his right, he rolled the ball past Édouard Mendy. Chelsea levelled from the spot. It takes chutzpah to take a penalty like Jorginho at the best of times. And these were not the best of times, but he jinked up, stopped and rolled it into the corner.
And that was pretty much that for this game. The new world starts here. And already the ground has begun to shift just a little bit.