After eight games of the season Manchester United are already in desperate-for-a-win territory as they prepare for the visit of Villarreal to Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær remains positive despite the club’s troubling start. “We have a Champions League game and we are looking forward to that,” the United manager said. “We didn’t start well [in the competition] but we will be fired up, the fans and the players, for that one. We will be on the front foot looking to win.”
Why the mini-crisis before the clocks go back? Because United are an early-season puzzle. Good or bad? Profligate or unlucky? Missing a vital – call it Declan Rice-shaped – element in midfield? Or is Solskjær three or four performances away from discovering how to assemble a line-up of talent featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho, Luke Shaw, Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford (when fit) into a sleek, powerful proposition?
So far, so erratic. In the last fortnight United have played badly in defeats at Young Boys (2-1, Champions League) and at home to West Ham (1-0, Carabao Cup) and Aston Villa (1-0, Premier League).
Cold analysis shows Solskjær’s men are out of one competition – the Carabao Cup. They have lost one league game so far, which is the same as the champions, Manchester City, and United are one point behind the leaders, Liverpool. Victory over Villarreal will change the narrative of Group F, in which Atalanta are the fourth side.
But it is the manner of the displays that points a light at Solskjær. If the Carabao Cup exit can be chalked off as United’s second XI, Saturday’s defeat was reminiscent of Young Boys and previous ones where the plot was also seriously lost. Two occurred last season: the 6-1 league humiliation at Old Trafford on 4 October against Tottenham and the slipshod 2-1 Champions League loss at Istanbul Basaksehir a month later.
In all of these Solskjær sent a team out that lacked a solid core, one unable to shut off a contest when required. This is where it could be argued that Sancho and/or Ronaldo were the wrong summer buy and instead Rice (or AN Other) should have been recruited to run midfield and thus the game.
But, if the attack consistently fires this can be a non-debate. Against Villa, in the first half, Mason Greenwood was a terror but neither he nor a colleague could score. This happens. Teams lack concentration, the killer edge goes awol, there are off-days.
“We had started the season well until today,” said Solskjær. “This is our first loss in the league, it is very finely balanced. I know these players, I know they will fight to put this right.”
The question remains: are the losses to Young Boys, Basaksehir, Tottenham and Villa the requisite growing pains of Solskjær’s nascent squad? Or a pattern that shows a fault-line with his management, the Norwegian’s ability to make United what they have to be this season – true contenders?