Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt the weight lift from his shoulders after seeing Manchester United bounce back from their humiliation against Liverpool to secure a crucial 3-0 victory against Tottenham. The fact it took two moments of brilliance from Cristiano Ronaldo to win the game showed that the Norwegian’s new setup may just paper over the cracks for the time being.
Solskjaer needed to try something different after watching his side crumble against a revitalised Liverpool side, succumbing to a humiliating 5-0 defeat at Old Trafford — their worst since 1925 against the Reds.
But that did not so much mean an alternation in personnel, with only two changes in total. Rather, the Norwegian opted to change his formation to a more defensive 3-4-1-2 for the trip to Tottenham.
In essence, it was taking a leaf out Thomas Tuchel’s book and few could blame the 48-year-old, given how sturdy and successful Chelsea have been this season. Solskjaer knew that a repeat of the Liverpool performance would surely see him lose his job — he simply could not lose this one.
Still, Man United don’t have N’Golo Kante or Jorginho to sit in the double pivot. Fred and Scott McTominay were the most obvious options to fill the role and started again.
It was a necessary change to go for a more solid approach. At least, that is how Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville saw it, with the former United man describing the tactical switch as something of a last saloon with the sack looming.
But all it took was one moment of sheer class and individual quality from their Portuguese superstar to find the opening.
United passed with confidence as Spurs defended deep on the edge of the box. And with one turn on the swivel, Bruno Fernandes lofted a ball to Ronaldo, who slammed home the volley with precision.
The movement was expert and the finish simply sublime. There was no question that in a game of little quality or composure, the veteran star had stood out and made the difference.
In a game where it seemed like only one goal would be needed to win it, it was a crucial strike from the 36-year-old. Sure, any player can take a penalty or tap in from close range.
But very few players can strike a ball quite like Ronaldo.
Just like he had done against Villarreal and Atalanta, the 36-year-old had produced the goods for Solskjaer and United again.
It should not disguise the ease in which they were opened up through the central areas. Perhaps a side with more confidence in attack than Spurs currently have would have put them to the sword, but Son Heung-min squandered two good chances.
The summer of 2021 was viewed as almost a perfect transfer window for Manchester United, with Ronaldo returning home, Jadon Sancho finally arriving and Raphael Varane adding quality to the backline.
It was widely stated that Ronaldo’s return would automatically put United amongst the Premier League title contenders. But there was still something missing from the squad.
The consensus was that, instead of spending £85million on two attackers, Man United had failed to address their urgent need for a holding midfielder.
Such a fee might have been enough to secure Declan Rice from West Ham United — and it definitely would have been sufficient to sign either Yves Bissouma from Brighton or AS Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni.
The season that Rice has had in the heart of the West Ham midfield has only increased his value inside the club and perhaps to interested parties.
Meanwhile, Man United had kept only one clean sheet this season and suffered from a number of lapses of concentration in midfield areas.
There were signs of the same pattern emerging when Fred was caught in possession, only for Lo Celso’s pass to fall short of finding Son.
But Nuno Espirito Santo’s side are in the midst of their own unhappy period and that was reflected by the loud chorus of boos that echoed around the stadium, as well as their blunt attack.
And it was the same pairing again of Ronaldo and Fernandes whom combined on the break to set up Edinson Cavani to double the lead and seal a massive victory.
The fact the Portuguese duo were brought off late in the game only underlined how pivotal they are to Solskjaer, hoping to protect the pair ahead of the next games against Atalanta and Manchester City.
For now, these three points will be viewed as crucial in keeping Solskjaer in his job. It could be argued his tactics were spot on after such a convincing scoreline and the 3-4-1-2 may be the blueprint for him to use for the rest of the season.
But as long as they have Ronaldo firing and Fernandes supplying, there is always the possibility of Man United turning any result and their season around — regardless of who the manager is.