After dropping more points at the weekend, it’s all doom and gloom around Man Utd. But there are reasons for optimism at Old Trafford…
The weekend draw with Everton prompted much criticism for United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But it must be remembered that they remain only two points off the top of the table with the same record as Manchester City.
So there are grounds for optimism. Here are six for starters…
This season’s start is far, far better than last year’s
A year is a sodding long time in football, but not long enough to forget just how badly the Red Devils started last season…
At the time of writing, it is exactly a year almost to the minute since Jose Mourinho strolled back down the touchline, unable to conceal his sh*t-eating grin, after he brought Spurs back to his former club and humped them 6-1 at Old Trafford.
After that humiliation, in which United were lucky to escape with only six on the scoreboard, there seemed little hope. United were 16th in the table, with Harry Maguire seemingly suffering flashbacks from his spell in the Mykonos can, Paul Pogba phoning it in and Luke Shaw performing so poorly that they signed a replacement within a few days.
The Spurs shambles was three games into the season. By matchday seven, the point we find ourselves in the current campaign, United were still 14th, eight points off the leaders. Then they went 12 matches unbeaten, winning nine, and within six games they were in the top two, from where they never fell. So we know United are capable of putting ropey starts behind them.
16 Conclusions: Man Utd 1-6 Tottenham
United finished second with a squad worse than this season’s
Much of the reason for optimism over an upturn in form is because United have better players this season. Much better players…
Man Utd finished second then signed one of the greatest players of all time, one of the best central defenders in the world, and one of the most exciting young wingers around. Okay, so there is still a gaping void in midfield which criminally wasn’t addressed, but Solskjaer inspired United to a runners-up spot last season then significantly strengthened the squad that he had.
United’s strength in depth, aside from that central midfield chasm, is pretty frightening, especially in attack. Even if Solskjaer’s squad is hit by injuries, as it inevitably will at some point in the season, United can cope better than most of their Premier League rivals, all of whom have a weakness in their squad – like Solskjaer’s midfield – which could derail their title hopes. United aren’t perfect, but no Premier League side is.
Solskjaer has improved many of the players he had
Not only has Solskjaer and the United brains trust recruited top quality, the United manager is teasing improved form from some of the players who a year ago looked like their Old Trafford careers were fizzling out.
David De Gea has started the season looking more like the world-class goalkeeper of a couple of years ago rather than the pale imitation of a stopper we saw before he was made to re-audition for his role, with Dean Henderson turning the screw on the Spaniard. Hopefully, United might not be quite as reliant on De Gea in the coming months as they have been in the last few weeks.
Maguire and Shaw got over their early-season wobbles a year ago and established themselves as England’s best centre-back and left-back respectively.
Mason Greenwood might not be dazzling Gareth Southgate at the moment but the 20-year-old has been one of United’s brightest sparks so far this season, and the youngster is evidently thriving in the faith Solskjaer has placed in him. The kid’s potential is genuinely scary and he seems to have lifted himself out of he rut he found himself in last season.
Premier League winners and Solskjaer (plus other losers)
Jadon Sancho will improve
So there is plenty of hope for Jadon Sancho.
The £73million winger has had a tough start to life at United, with Solskjaer’s selections perhaps not helping the 21-year-old. Sancho was signed to remedy a problem on the right of United’s attack but has so far been restricted to the left while Greenwood thrives on the opposite side.
But Sancho is hardly the first player to struggle to catch fire after a big move. There are ten here, featuring a few who eventually became United legends.
Marcus Rashford’s injury has left a vacant spot on the left which needed to be filled and Sancho is the man Solskjaer has sometimes trusted with that job. Anthony Martial is woefully one-sided while Paul Pogba has played there, but Solskjaer seems to think the midfielder can still be teased into producing some form as part of a double-pivot.
So in the short term, Sancho will get more opportunities on the right and eventually, probably next season, Greenwood will be used predominantly down the centre when Edinson Cavani departs. But the battle for the right-wing spot this season could be electric if it helps to bring out the best in Sancho and Greenwood.
United’s flaws should be simple to fix
The ‘should’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, I grant you. And it is stretching this writer’s optimism to see this as a reason to be cheerful, but bear with me…
Man Utd were undone again on the counter-attack at the weekend, with Everton’s equaliser preventable in a myriad of ways. A crap corner delivery; Fred being bundled off the ball twice by Demarai ‘The Destroyer’ Gray; Shaw being sucked in; Scott McTominay not tracking back fast enough… it was beautifully executed by Everton but never should the break have reached the halfway line.
You would hope that Eric Ramsey, United’s new set-piece coach, will be working to stop that from happening again. And a number of the moments that have cost United have come from moments when you would expect better from the individuals concerned, which SHOULD be easier to fix than a systemic failure.
United are fun
This is important, especially given how much Solskjaer and the club preach ‘The United Way’. The Red Devils are fun to watch again.
Right now, Man Utd are never dull. Infuriating and frustrating? Too often at the moment, yes. But boring? Nope. Which is more than can be said for the post-Fergie years before Solskjaer took over, and for some of the Norwegian’s early reign.
With United’s firepower, it would be even more worrying if they were a tough watch, more so than they fact that they aren’t yet firing on all cylinders. But with Ronaldo getting his feet back under the table, Cavani returning to fitness, Rashford on his way back and Sancho set to improve, help is on the way for Sexy Bruno, who has spent much of his United career performing a one-man show.
At least United are making their fans feel something again other than apathy. Which was the prevailing mood for far too long.