As sure as night follows day, hot on the heels of Manchester United’s Champions League exit on Tuesday night an off-the-record briefing is said to have taken place listing all the reasons why everything is just fine at Old Trafford.
Let’s have a look at them, shall we?
United are still in contention for four trophies
Let’s begin with our favourite. United are indeed in with a chance of winning four trophies. That is a fact. Completely irrefutable.
United certainly are in contention for the Europa League. Well done Ole, Ed, and everyone involved in preserving their hopes of winning this particular competition. To think how close they came to missing out completely…
A slow clap too for not being knocked out of the FA Cup yet.
Staying in the Carabao Cup was a little more taxing. Having beaten Luton and Brighton, Solskjaer will take United to Everton two days before Christmas for a quarter-final, one step prior to the stage they reached last season when they were knocked out in the semi-finals. Which happened to Solskjaer’s United in all of the cup competitions last season.
To claim United are in contention for the Premier League title is a matter for debate. Though not necessarily a long one. They are in with a shout in a similar way to Newcastle, Burnley, West Ham… they COULD win it too. But they almost certainly won’t.
United’s 19 points and 19 goals is better than last season’s Premier League start
Again, true. After 10 matches last season, United had 13 points and 13 goals, whereas this season they have a half-dozen more in each category.
But as Castles gleefully points out, the baseline for this ‘progress’ is their worst start to a Premier League season. Indeed, it was their joint-worst start since Ron Atkinson’s side sat third from bottom with eight points after ten games in 1986-87. Three weeks later, Big Ron was sacked and in came Sir Alex Ferguson.
United’s current haul is two points better than Jose Mourinho managed after 10 games in 2018-19 but, once again, he was sacked within a few weeks while United sat in seventh place as Old Trafford crumbled amid the acrimony of his final days on the throne. That was before Solskjaer arrived and United, powered by smiles and nostalgia, thundered up the table to finish *checks notes* sixth.
In fairness, United currently are two points better off than their average haul of 17 points after 10 games in the seven previous post-Ferguson seasons. But still fewer than Mourinho or Louis van Gaal gathered at the start of their second seasons in charge.
And, surprisingly, while bragging about all the goals, United neglect to mention what is going on at the other end. They have shipped 17 goals. Never since Ferguson have they conceded more by this stage of the season. Prior to this season, on average in the post-Fergie era, United have conceded 11 goals after 10 games.
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Sitting five points behind the leaders is progress
United are closer to the Premier League leaders, that again is true. They could even close the gap to two points if they win their game in hand against Burnley. Which is really quite remarkable.
But the fact the leaders – Tottenham and Liverpool are level on 24 points – are not already out of sight is more a consequence of what has been going on at other clubs than whatever United feel they are doing right. Liverpool last season had dropped only two points by this stage and were 15 clear of Solskjaer’s United. This term, they have dropped nine points and still lead the Red Devils.
Solskjaer will point to that game in hand and only in two seasons since Ferguson have United been this close to the Premier League leaders at this juncture. Van Gaal had them within two points in his second season in charge while Mourinho was also five off the top by this stage in 2017-18.
So, yes, it is progress on last season, but the context is important. And, once more, should United not hold slightly loftier aspirations than remaining close enough so as to choke on the dust of whoever may be leading the Premier League?
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The team now has an identity?
Tell us more, Ed.
What might that identity be? Being utterly sh*t for 45 minutes to provide a platform for a fightback which may or may not be enough? Being comically bad at the back? Banking on Bruno Fernandes to pull something out of his magic hat – again?
Those are things you would think about first when this Manchester United team crops up in conversation. They are woefully inconsistent and, for their fans, infuriating.
Solskjaer cannot legitimately point towards a recognisable style of play because United don’t have one. The manager chops and changes his formation far too often for that.
Being tactically agile is often to be commended but Solskjaer has been tinkering almost on a twice-weekly basis this season. Three at the back; a diamond midfield; a double pivot…the manager seems unconvinced by any of the tactics he has tried so far this season.
The most recognisable theme of Solskjaer’s reign has been the employment of a back three against the bigger opponents they want to counter-attack. It has often worked on some big occasions, but it certainly did not in Leipzig, where they went looking for the draw they needed before conceding two in the opening 13 minutes.
Only Pep Guardiola is yet to suss out how and when United play this system and we’ll likely see on Saturday evening if the penny has dropped yet.
Overall, yes, this United side may have an identity, but it is almost certainly not the one they might like to think it is.