When the season started with a 4-0 home win over Chelsea, everything looked positive at Manchester United.
After a summer where they addressed three of their key issues (signing Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James), a crushing win over a top six rival was the perfect start for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his first full season in charge.
Fast forward to early December, and you could find some fans actually HOPING that Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur side would win at Old Trafford on Gameweek 15, just so Solskjaer would be shown the door and the club could finally make a move for Mauricio Pochettino.
But Ole had other ideas, and after a 2-1 win thanks to a Marcus Rashford brace, things are looking relatively positive in Manchester again.
They’re in the top eight, and chances of a top four finish aren’t completely dead, as every other team in the league seems to beat each other every week.
The United fanbase might be less optimistic of a top four finish if you asked them though, purely because they’ve been burnt too many times this season by bad results following promising ones. A 2-2 draw with Aston Villa preceded the win over Spurs, while the 3-3 draw with Sheffield United should have yielded more points having been 3-2 up with seconds remaining.
But why can’t Man United find consistency in their results? Looking at the pattern of play during games, it’s perhaps not that hard to work out.
Going back to the first game of the season against Chelsea, you might remember that before Rashford opened the scoring from the penalty spot after a rash Kurt Zouma tackle, United were second best. Chelsea dominated possession, and Tammy Abraham went close a couple of times before the penalty changed the swing of things.
Seconds later, a perfect pass from Paul Pogba allowed Rashford to make it 2-0, and from then on, the home side could pick off Chelsea at will. It’s these types of games where Manchester United are incredibly dangerous, and a match for anyone. They can sit deep, and when they win the ball back; Rashford, James and Anthony Martial can tear a hole in the opposition on the counter.
Any game where that trio can use their pace on the counter attack is a game where the Red Devils can be effective, however not every opponent will allow this to happen.
Take the game at St James’ Park against Newcastle in October for example. For 90 minutes, Newcastle’s tactics were to sit deep and stay solid, frustrating Man United’s creative players and suffocating the space.
Solskjaer’s side were forced to dominate possession, and they weren’t creative enough to do anything with it. As they got more desperate to unlock a stubborn Newcastle, they threw more men forward and left themselves open to a counter attack, which led to Matty Longstaff smacking the winner and taking the points for Steve Bruce’s side.
It’s these types of games where Manchester United struggle, and it’s something they need another transfer window to fix.
Once January arrives, depending on funds available, they can go and get a creative midfielder to compliment Scott McTominay in midfield that can unpick defences. Someone in the mould of Jorginho at Chelsea would be ideal, but someone of a similar ilk to Gini Wijnaldum at Liverpool would transform the team.
At the minute, more sides in the Premier League are going to adopt the Newcastle style of approach than the Chelsea one when facing United, and that’s only likely to leave a top six finish looking more distant. There are more limited teams in the league than free flowing ones, so Solskjaer and co have to find a way of breaking down the more defensive outfits that they come up against.
If they can find a way to do that, this season may not be a write-off just yet.