Following their 1-0 loss to Newcastle United at St. James’ Park on Sunday, Manchester United have now gone five competitive fixtures without a win in normal play.
Eight games into the 2019/20 Premier League season, the Red Devils find themselves in the bottom half of the table, nestled in between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United in 12th place and just two points clear of the relegation zone.
The performances haven’t exactly stirred the senses, with only a growing sense of anger and disappointment being provoked from their endlessly-loyal supporter base.
For those who made the trip to Newcastle at the weekend, witnessing lacklustre displays has become an unwanted ritual. And the bi-weekly dissections haven’t been much fun either, with surgical criticism by pundits and podcasters alike underlining the struggles of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The Norwegian’s record since being appointed into the role on a permanent basis in March 2019 - United have won just four of 16 Premier League matches in that time - is proving a tired but ever-worsening statistic.
Manchester United used to set the standard in England until quite recently. This is a club still peerless in its achievements. Records continue to tumble on a regular basis but these days they tend to be of the unwanted variety. This season alone, Crystal Palace won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1989 and, most recently, Newcastle boss Steve Bruce won for the first time in 23 tries against his former club.
It has long been accepted - by Solskjaer’s immediate predecessors as much as anyone - that Old Trafford has ceased to maintain the ‘fortress’ mystique that defined the two decades of success under Sir Alex Ferguson. Moreover, away days have become a chore, with no victory on the road since that crazy night in Paris in March.
United have returned just 17 points from Solskjaer’s 16 matches in the Premier League, the fourth worst record in the top tier over that period. In the eyes of some, things can only get better.
But is there a silver lining to this monotonous malaise which has beset the Mancunian side?
The International Break Couldn’t Have Arrived At A Better Time
Manchester United’s next match sees the host arch-nemeses Liverpool at Old Trafford, and with Jurgen Klopp’s side having so far collected maximum points in the new campaign you can understand a sense of dread among the United fan base about what might transpire. And United supporters won’t take it any better if their Merseyside rivals were to go on to reclaim the league title for the first time in three decades come May.
However, United have had to deal with recent fixtures despite having first-teamers on the sidelines, including key figures such as club-record signing Paul Pogba, first-choice striker Anthony Martial and summer signing and growing fan-favourite Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
The fortnight’s reprieve that is the international break will allow further rest and recuperation ahead of the biggest game of United’s season so far. The ability to choose from a more fully-equipped squad can be no bad thing as Solskjaer looks to halt the slide, and there is no more natural motivation for any Manchester United side than seeing Liverpool on the opposing side of the field.
Maybe this is exactly the kind of challenge United need next.
The New Signings Have Been Paying Off, and Solskjaer’s Vision Has Become Clearer
A questionable 2018 summer transfer window was rectified with solid signings in the most recent off-season. A total outlay of £145m was spent on proven Premier League players Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka to tighten a leaky defence which managed just two clean sheets in the league in 2018/19.
Some doubted Wan-Bissaka’s potential longevity given his relative inexperience but he has quickly made himself at home at Old Trafford, with only his recent injury stunting his progress thus far. Maguire, meanwhile, has given the United back-line a new edge even if he was guilty of fluffing the Reds’ best chance to net at Newcastle on Sunday.
The other addition, Daniel James, has been a positive for Solskjaer as he looks to add talented youngsters into his first-team squad. Only five players of the first-team squad are over the age of 30, and two of those are goalkeepers. Eighteen-year-old academy product Mason Greenwood has become a firm fixture of Solskjaer’s plans too, and full debuts for the likes of Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and Brandon Williams have also come during the 2019/20 campaign.
There is a clear vision of sorts, and that at least ought to be worthy of praise.
Aside from Liverpool, can anyone legitimately claim to be immune to criticism so far this season? Every team outside of the red half of Merseyside has had their relative disappointments thus far, and even they have had to scrape over the line in their last three games across the Premier League and Champions League.
And in the wider context, while United are going through the ringer for the moment, Liverpool have not won a league title since 1990. They have employed eight different permanent managers in the 30 years which have followed, putting the current issues at Old Trafford into a degree of context.
United overcame four-time Premier League champs Chelsea on the opening day of the season in a 4-0 rout, and Frank Lampard’s Blues know the peaks and troughs of a campaign as well as anyone over recent years. On the back of their last title success under Jose Mourinho in 2014/15, the west London outfit would go on to record a dire run which saw them collect just eight points from their first eight games the following term. By mid-December they had lost nine of their sixteen league games, prompting the Portuguese’s departure. The season after, they won the title again under Antonio Conte.
Tottenham Hotspur suffered an even worst drudge six years prior; picking up just two points from their first eight games under Juande Ramos. The Lilywhites would eventually finish the season in an admirable eighth, reaching a League Cup final to boot.
Early-season form is far from irreparable.
This season Liverpool and Leicester City have been the two sides to impress most defensively, with even incumbent champions Manchester City having been blighted by issues at the back. United have at least been quite tight in that respect, even if their attacking numbers leave a lot to be desired.
Is there anger or apathy in the United ranks? What is constantly apparent is there is in fact a reinvigorated communal attitude in the Man Utd fan base; after watching their side concede Matty Longstaff’s winner on Tyneside, the chants from the travelling support were once again in favour of Solskjaer. There were, on the other hand, calls for the club’s owners, the Glazer family, and executive vice-chair Ed Woodward to go.
There is solidarity in suffering, and little evidence of division on the terraces. The red flag is still flying high in that sense, at least.