It was powerfully poetic that as Manchester United’s past and present collided at Old Trafford, with a banner of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer colouring the Stretford End being stared at by Ralf Rangnick in the directors’ box, that we are more confused than ever as to what to expect of their future.
The new interim manager, freshly bestowed with a work permit and with only a watching brief against Arsenal with Michael Carrick in charge, tuned in as Fred assisted one of the all-time comedic and plain-weird goals in Premier League history by injuring his goalkeeper, before helping craft a very fine one and then winning the penalty that won the game.
The Brazilian is perhaps a perfect snapshot of United’s state: the good, the bad, the my god – what is happening?!
Fred is curious because he is actually progressive in possession, thieves it well and knows how to exploit and maximise space. Even so, he is pure chaos and one of the many conundrums Rangnick will have to crack.
The new guy had also seen David de Gea, who had his ankle stomped on by the midfielder, stay down as Emile Smith Rowe swatted in a left-footed strike from 20 yards.
The goalkeeper was not badly injured and did not play to Martin Atkinson’s whistle, but later produced a top-shelf save with his right hand to avert danger created from Martin Odegaard’s corner.
That is in keeping with De Gea’s painting as a bit too brittle, but also his status as United’s best player this season. Then there is Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, who does do much but the most precious things: scores goals and wins games.
Having being welcomed to Old Trafford by that bizarre opener, Rangnick would applaud some sharp, slick and sublime play.
Just before the interval, Jason Sancho knitted a sweet short ball from the left to find Fred. Crowded in, he created some space to take a touch and deliver a delightful reverse pass for Bruno Fernandes, who opened his body and dispatched past Aaron Ramsdale.
The play was brilliant and the new temporary manager seemed strongly impressed by the Portuguese’s impassioned celebration to his first goal since September.
There was more to excite Rangnick. Marcus Rashford and Diogo Dalot combined wonderfully, with the former picking out Ronaldo to apply a clinical finish into the bottom corner. It was another excellent team goal, but soon there was more to concern Rangnick.
Arsenal were level two minutes later, with Thomas Partey supplying Gabriel Martinelli in space on the right to pick out Odegaard. He dragged a low shot into the far corner from the edge of the area, but would be the one to impede Fred.
How Atkinson required VAR’s assistance to award a concrete penalty was a mystery, with Ronaldo coolly smashing the penalty straight down the middle for his 801st career goal.
The referee’s shoddy eyesight was not as much of a riddle as what happens next for United.
Rangnick has never experienced anything near the club’s scale, expectations and pressures.
Then there are United’s contrasts which, as evidenced here, has a habit of appearing in the same game. The only guarantee is that there will be entertainment, with Fred probably still central to it.