The Portugal international scored a 95th-minute winner to give his side a much-needed win in the Champions League, but it papered over the cracks
The Manchester United fans who celebrated with a shirtless Cristiano Ronaldo after he scored a 95th-minute winner against Villarreal will not care that this performance was not deserving of three points.
They will not care that it papered over the cracks of what was ultimately another disappointing European performance.
The euphoric celebrations went on long after the final whistle had blown at Old Trafford, where United had beaten Unai Emery’s side 2-1 in the Champions League. They stayed to see Ronaldo and serenaded manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as he stood for his post-match media interviews.
But when the adrenaline of yet another last-minute winner has worn off, this game will serve as another warning for Solskjaer that unless his team improve, they are not going anywhere in this competition.
In fact, he admitted it himself; they got lucky.
After losing to Young Boys in the opening group game, another defeat would have been humiliating and a draw not good enough. They will be hoping this win will get them back on the right track – a catalyst to better things – after a disappointing last couple of weeks in which they had lost three out of the last four.
If it had not been for the brilliance of David de Gea, who pulled off three world-class saves in the opening 45 minutes, Villarreal would have been out of sight at half-time. They were a constant thorn in United’s right side with Diogo Dalot, in for the suspended Aaron Wan-Bissaka, unable to deal with the threat of Arnaut Danjuma.
Solskjaer spent numerous periods in the first half barking instructions at his backline over their positioning. It appeared that they did not know what they should be doing or where they should be going. Their shape when the team was attacking, and Dalot pushed further forward, was all over the place.
That is the most concerning trait about this United team at the moment. There does not seem to be a plan, or if there is one the players are not executing it well enough in games.
Emery had his team well drilled. They attacked as a unit with slick, quick movement, which is how they eventually broke the deadlock early in the second half. It was a well-worked goal that was finished by Paco Alcacer, who could have had a hat-trick on another night.
Each time the Spanish side countered, United were left vulnerable, with a mismatched defence exploited without a coherent structure.
Compare that to when United ventured forward and they were met with a yellow wall; a team who knew exactly what their roles were and how to execute the plan. The lack of speed in United’s attacks gave the opposition ample time to get back and defend deep, making it even harder for Solskjaer’s men to get through.
While the visitors attacked with style and connected with clever combinations, United were again left to rely on individual moments of brilliance to get them over the line. It has become a feature of this United team. When there does not appear to be a strategy or a plan, someone will pull something out of the bag.
Think of Jesse Lingard against West Ham or Alex Telles and Ronaldo at Old Trafford last night.
“We had a bit of luck that we didn’t have in the last game,” Ronaldo told BT Sport after the win. “It was a great attitude from our players and the fans pushed us a lot and I have to thank them. This is what we need when we’re down and not playing well. It’s an important win.”