Corner turned or delaying the inevitable? That’s the question most Manchester United fans were left with after their team’s comfortable victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday.
Firstly, let’s get the disclaimer out of the way; Spurs were truly inept, making any definitive conclusions about United’s quality unsure, to say the least.
Still, as the old saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. Even when said obstacle creaks and groans like a pensioner with cataracts and two false hips.
When the teams were announced, there were some raised eyebrows. It looked very much like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had reacted to the noise of the previous week by deploying a 3-5-2 formation.
That in itself wasn’t without precedent. The Norwegian has exploited the defensive solidity and counter-attacking potential of the formation to get creditable results against quality opposition before.
That can now read, quality opposition and Nuno Espirito-Santo’s’ Spurs.
Backed into a corner by a baying mob of disgruntled fans and predatory media, Solskjaer opted to forego expansive football in favour of something a little more prosaic.
And it worked, as the rediscovered ‘just-please-don’t-lose’ formation gave United an organisation out of possession that has been sorely lacking all season.
For the first time in the current campaign, the opposition were limited to half-chances. No shots registered on the visitors’ goal and the wearying sight of red shirts haring towards their own goal was mercifully absent.
There were other positives as well. Raphael Varane returned to provide an aura of zen-like calm and Harry Maguire had one of his best games of the season.
Perhaps reassured by the presence of a back three, Scott McTominay gave a reminder of his potential with a rampaging display at the heart of midfield.
And, in Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani, the visitors had the wily-old evergreens to provide a high-end cutting edge. It looked like a partnership of real promise.
But (and of course there’s a ‘but’) if this turns out to be the new template for success, what are the implications for the array of attacking talents who don’t obviously suit the formation?
Perhaps the biggest loser in a long-term 3-5-2 would be Jadon Sancho.
Having spent over two years chasing the former Dortmund ace, it would seem like serious short-termism to tear up the plan and adopt a set up that marginalises his skills as a wide man.
Although he’s clearly not capable of being remodelled as a wing-back, it’s possible he could be used just off the striker in a roaming role.
However, there’s no guarantee that, given the chance, he could adapt to a central position. It would smack of a gilded square peg being jammed into a grotty round hole.
Aside from Sancho, what of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and perennial ‘ghost at the feast’ Donny van de Beek?
The real problem with a brave new world of wingless wonders is that it would instantly reduce opportunities for the one type of player United have in abundance – the wide attacker.
And personnel isn’t the only problem. It’s all well and good using a back three in times of crisis but would fans accept its limitations against ‘lesser’ sides?
Depending on the opposition, could it be tweaked to a more attacking 3-4-3? If so, could Solskjaer add extra attacking impetus without sacrificing solidity?
Could Aaron Wan-Bissaka build upon his bright display to offer a consistent attacking outlet? If not, can Diogo Dalot be relied upon to balance his attacking flair with defensive discipline?
All these questions come from a sense that United’s coaches are making it up on the fly, rather than fixating upon a clear destination.
And to add to the intrigue, the rebirth of 3-5-2 comes in the same week that many United fans played down links with Antonio Conte because of his preference for that very same system.
It seems typical of the Norwegian’s sides that even satisfactory answers lead to bigger questions. It’s a rabbit hole that leads to a labyrinth of bigger rabbit holes. There’s no sure footing.
But, after a week of soul-searching, maybe it’s time to let the navel-gazing recede for a little while and just enjoy the upsides of a good win.
Bigger questions will be asked this week. The answers could determine Solskjaer’s future.