As Cristiano Ronaldo prepared to come on to the pitch with an hour gone at Stamford Bridge, having already performed a dutiful kind of warm-up, idling along the touchline like a venerable old don taking a stroll on the chamomile lawns, a large book of laminated diagrams was waved in front of his nose.
Ronaldo, to his credit, made a decent 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 hand written notes, to look for a sign, a prognosis of his own future in this mid-season revolution.
The appointment of Ralf Rangnick as Manchester United’s 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 has lacks a pattern, a unity of purpose, an intellectual validity. Bring on the iron fist, the footballer-as-machine-for-winning aesthetic of Dr Gegenpress.
It might feel like a wild leap to the opposite extreme. But something has to change around here. And on this occasion it was Ronaldo, who was dropped, not rested, for the first time since his return. It would be 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.
Either way Ronaldo’s role is central to what happens to this team now. Not just in terms of patterns of play, but in drilling down into how serious United really are about bending to the will of their 63-year-old troubleshooter.
Scan back through Rangnick’s’ own laminated binder and pretty much every significant public utterance feels like a case being made for the removal of Ronaldo, or Ronaldo-equivalent, as the focal point of his team.
Rangnick loves youth and energy. Suffering, abasement to the collective: this is his schtick. Rangnick hates star players. “The idea is a team without individuals,” he has said. Ah. About that. Rangnick also hates complacency, a fixed culture, the feeling of being stuck. How’s that one going to play out? Welcome, Ralf, to a club and a team still haunted by a manager who was appointed in 1986.
Quite what this means for United’s one-man rescue act of the last few months is hardly black and white. Ronaldo knows how to play that game and will run for the team. But the last six years have seen him pare his own role back to a razor edge. He’s 36 years old. Frankly it is hard to think of a player Rangnick would have been less inclined to sign for his own United team.
It would also be foolish to draw any firm conclusion from a single game against a sub-par Chelsea, who had 21 shots to United’s two but didn’t really deserve much more than a 1-1 draw.
This was a poor afternoon for Thomas Tuchel. Picking Timo Werner as a starting attacker against a team sitting this deep is one thing. Keeping him on the pitch after a full 80 minutes spent haring about like a startled cat: this seemed pretty weird. As did the decision to leave Romelu Lukaku on the bench as cross after cross wanged its way across the United penalty area.
But something had changed for the white shirts, 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 felt like an audition, a message to the giant robot brain watching on his private monitor. But United didn’t really press here much. They sat deep and tried to break. This was in effect the Ole-ball team of last year, the phase when they would sit back and break quickly against better teams, a tactic that worked well at times.
Michael Carrick picked a three-man midfield bolt of Fred-McTominay-Matic, and that trio formed the bedrock of a gristly, committed, all-for-one performance.
Early on Calum 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 ten yards when he should have scored. But Chelsea’s pressure was diffuse and they were made to pay just after half time. Ronaldo’s absence had made space in the team for Sancho and Marcus Rashford, two players who stand to gain most from some kind of Rangnick defibrillation. Those in the know say that Sancho’s success in Dortmund was based around some very clear tactical instructions, a willingness to fulfil a brief.
He already looks on an upward curve, and he scored an extraordinary goal, 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. And that was pretty much that for this game. Already the ground has begun to shift just a little bit. Some will say it was Ronaldo’s arrival that hobbled the Solskjaer era, a solid counter-attacking team re-geared around a single celebrity sniper. This is hard for Ronaldo’s fans to digest. How can the player with the goal tally be the problem? How can the famous, winning man be bad? The other view is that Ronaldo has been the lone bright spot this season. The man whose view really matters is yet to enter the stadium. But this was a fascinating first act.