‘The King’ may return to Manchester United action on Sunday, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s title now serves as a ceremonial function rather than one of authority over his teammates. Erik ten Hag brought his strongest team to Oslo for the match against Atletico Madrid, and his absence has all but established the lineup he will employ against Brighton in their Premier League start next Saturday.
United fans have had to take their pre-season results with a grain of salt because, while impressive, they are meaningless. Saturday’s defeat to the team who knocked them out of the Champions League last season was a stinging reminder of the hurdles they still face.
Atletico Madrid was always going to be the greatest test United would face this summer, and the first few minutes appeared to be a wake-up call as the La Liga side pressed hard against their backline.
But, as the phrase goes, pressure produces diamonds, and with the arrival of Tyrell Malacia this summer, they have one in the rough. Few supporters would have expected a new left-back to arrive this year, but they’ll be delighted they did following another superb performance.
Diogo Dalot has beaten out Aaron Wan-Bissaka to be the first choice on the right side of the defense, and Malacia appears to be doing the same on the left. His starting spot was aided by Luke Shaw’s absence due to sickness, but he made his case with his coolness in possession when playing out from the back against an Atletico team that took a muscular attitude not frequently seen in a ‘friendly.’
When in possession, the 22-year-old was not just calm with the ball at his feet, but he also knew when to take calculated chances. His brilliant through ball split the opposition defense and could have resulted in an assist if Anthony Martial hadn’t lost possession of the ball.
Benni McCarthy was announced as a first-team coach before the game, and Martial might have used his counsel when he raced through on goal in the first five minutes but wasted his one-on-one with an effort that cleared the bar.
United’s intensity was tested in the heat of Oslo, but Victor Lindelof held his calm by making a brilliant tackle in the area to deny Geoffrey Kondogbia a clear chance for a goal. David de Gea quickly followed suit, racing off his line to clear the ball before Matheus Cunha could capitalize on their defensive blunder.
Atletico’s no-nonsense approach, designed to frustrate and anger their opponents, made things even more difficult. There were a couple minor infractions during the game before things erupted from a corner just before halftime after the aggressive Scott McTominay put his mark on Jan Oblak. A goalmouth brawl ensued, resulting in a barrage of yellow cards.
Because of the underlying ugliness of the game and the ensuing stop-start play, Christian Eriksen’s presence on the touchline for a warm-up was as loud as the crowd got during the first half at the Ullevaal Stadion.
Diego Simeone’s team was not the most natural opponents to face given the physical demands they place on his players, but they were a true barometer of where United need to be next season and a reminder that for all of their creative flare in attack, they need the steel to match.
United needed a spark of inspiration to turn the game in their favor, and they almost got it fifteen minutes after the break when Bruno Fernandes caught Oblak off guard with a fast free-kick from distance, but the ‘keeper just about got to the ball.
Ten Hag’s team dominated the game, but in their haste, they made mistakes. A brilliant counter-attack was ended when Dalot squandered his cross into the box, and Atletico should have led when Koke shot over from close range unmarked.
A lift was required, which was provided by a double change. Eriksen made his unofficial debut in place of Scott McTominay, who was replaced by Donny van de Beek.
It didn’t take Dane long to work his magic either. His brilliantly weighted-through pass from deep cut through the opposing defense but just avoided Rashford’s head in the box.
His next effort, however, was on target, as he blasted an inswinging corner into Maguire’s head, who somehow guided it wide of goal.
Maguire, the club captain, is as guaranteed a starter as anybody these days, and while the goal may be to pair him with Lisandro Martinez in the future, Lindelof certainly established his case to start with a well-rounded performance.
Finally, the heat and the occasion took their toll. Rashford broke through the defensive line and did well to direct an effort on goal, but replacement Facundo Pellistri fluffed the rebound and gave away a cheap free-kick, encapsulating the afternoon’s fury.
He’d pay the price minutes later as replacement Joao Felix took advantage of some very lenient defense and shot the winner low into the bottom left corner of the goal, securing a fairly typical Atletico triumph.
United’s displeasure was palpable, and it grew worse as the game progressed. Fred, who had been fighting his way through the game, was kicked out and was given a second yellow card.
It was a harsh but valuable lesson, as well as a reminder of how much work United still has to do against Europe’s finest.