A crucial run of fixtures are coming up for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, writes Ryan Baldi.
If football is a results business then Manchester United’s business so far this season has been fine. Nothing spectacular, but equally no disaster.
They sit fourth in the Premier League table, level on points with champions Manchester City and just two points behind leaders Chelsea. A respectable start to the campaign for a side harbouring title ambitions.
In the Champions League, a defeat away to Young Boys represented an embarrassing slip. But the key to progress from the group stage is to win at home, and a 2-1 victory over Villarreal means United have done just that in their only Old Trafford outing so far in the competition. No great dramas.
As far as results go, United are just about on par with expectations.
This issue, however, is that it takes barely a scratch beneath the façade of these results to unearth a world of issues. The scorelines have largely been acceptable; the general level of performance – with the exception of an opening-weekend demolition of Leeds – has been anything but.
There has been meagre resistance shown in defeats to Aston Villa and draws with Southampton and Everton, and United are already out of the League Cup thanks to a home loss to West Ham. Even in victory, they have often showed little in the way of a cohesive tactical plan and a consistent approach to breaking down deep-set opposition. Positive Premier League results against Wolves and West Ham, as well as Villarreal in the Champions League, were scraped.
United’s saving grace has been the relatively soft start the fixture-generating computer afforded has them. When domestic matters resume after October’s international break, that changes. Leicester City, Atalanta (twice), Liverpool, Tottenham and City are all on deck for a three-week run.
CONFIRMED: Raphael Varane will be out for 'a few weeks' with a groin injury..
– Leicester City (A)
– Atalanta (H)
– Liverpool (H)
– Spurs (A)
– Atalanta (A)
– Man City (H)
A huge loss for Man United, especially looking at those fixtures! pic.twitter.com/z6tKPa9QSr
— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) October 12, 2021
Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 retirement, few matters have polarised United fans like the suitability of their incumbent manager. And Solskjaer – despite having ridden in on a wave of good will owing to his glorious playing past and the simple fact he is not Jose Mourinho – is no different.
Even Solskjaer’s most ardent opponents must acknowledge some of the good work he has done since his unexpected appointment in December 2018.
There have been exhilarating high points in the form of standout victories over Liverpool, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. And, albeit at no small expense, he has overseen a dramatic upgrade in United’s general squad quality, an uptick evidenced by third- and second-place league finishes in his only full seasons in charge to date.
He has spent heavily, but Solskjaer’s biggest signings have been undoubted successes. Harry Maguire, who became the world’s most expensive defender when moving to Old Trafford from Leicester City for $145m, has been so dependable a presence at the back that he was named United captain after just one season with the club. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was also acquired at eye-watering expense, but the 23-year-old has blossomed into one of the league’s finest one-on-one defenders, an obvious upgrade in a previous position of weaknesses. And in Bruno Fernandes’ $80m arrival from Sporting CP in January last year, Solskjaer can claim credit for one of the most impactful signings United have ever made.
Solskjaer’s critics, however, point to a perceived absence of tactical nous, a lack of a coherent, prescribed method of build-up and attacking play such as those espoused by the likes of Pep Guardiola at City, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea.
Has Ole been found out?
— United Update (@UnitedsUpdate) October 10, 2021
The issue Solskjaer faces now is that he is at risk of falling victim to his relative success. He has raised the floor at United, constructing a squad and cultivating a harmonious atmosphere that should ensure the kind of sixth- and seventh-place finishes endured under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho are far less likely.
This summer’s additions of Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo have injected a sense of urgency into Solskjaer’s rebuild project, though. Modest, incremental gains were fine before. Major signings and major investment necessitates major expectations.
“It feels like this season coming up is one of the strongest Premier League seasons,” the United manager told The Guardian in August. “It’s been City and Liverpool fighting it out for a while but us and Chelsea have spent well and should look at ourselves as potential challengers.”
This upcoming run of fixtures will go a long way towards determining whether Solskjaer can be more than just a floor-raiser for United. He needs to show, with the talent now at his disposal, that he can smash through post-Ferguson glass ceiling against which his predecessors found themselves stuck.