Despite defeat to Bournemouth at the start of November, Manchester United have shown important signs of improvement in recent weeks in both the Premier League and in the cup competitions.
On Wednesday 23 October, United were without an away win since that remarkable victory in the French capital against Paris Saint-Germain back in March in the UEFA Champions League.
Just one week later, United had picked up not just one victory on the road but three, with the success at Chelsea in the Carabao Cup particularly impressive, given that the Blues had won their previous seven games, coupled with the fact United had beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge just three times in 18 years before Wednesday.
While on paper people will say it was only Partizan Belgrade and Norwich – the two other sides United defeated away from home in this period – these are still crucial victories as United hadn’t been beating sides of this low calibre away this term.
Defeats at Newcastle and West Ham in the Premier League along with a turgid draw against AZ Alkmaar are just a few of the samplings that United have offered up on the road since August.
Therefore, it was of crucial importance that United kept this run of form going when they travelled to the south coast to face Bournemouth at the start of November, to show everyone that the team were in fact making genuine progress.
As the game kicked off, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have been desperate to make it four wins in a row to show his critics that United had really turned a corner.
Yet, as United supporters have become accustomed to in recent years, they let everyone down again, performing poorly for large periods in that 1-0 defeat.
As the full time whistle blew, it felt that United had taken a major step back, and the encouraging work of the previous week had all been undone.
The midfield three of Scott McTominay, Fred and Andreas Pereira looked void of creativity and ideas whilst up front Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial failed to influence the game in any manner.
The quality that Solskjaer’s side had offered up in the games preceding this was simply not on offer, as all Bournemouth had to do was sit in, defend well and take an opportunity when it came – which they did successfully through Josh King.
So, taking that performance into account, is there the need for the ‘crisis’ label to come flying out again thick and fast?
The answer is no.
Since then, United have swept aside Partizan at home with this 3-0 victory, largely down to the brilliance of the front three of Rashford, Martial and, in particular, Mason Greenwood, with all three getting on the scoresheet.
On Martial specifically, his return from injury was a major reason for United’s upturn in form before the Bournemouth defeat, with the Frenchman one of the few in the squad who has got genuine world class ability, making him so important for the Mancunians.
His delightful chip over the onrushing Tim Krul against Norwich firstly illustrated what a superb finisher he is, but also the 23-year-old’s combination with Rashford in the build up showed how important he is in getting the best out of the English youngster, with Rashford notably struggling far more when Martial was absent earlier in the campaign.
With games against Brighton at home and then Sheffield United away still to come in the Premier League in November – with the latter a potential banana skin given Arsenal went to the Steel City and lost just last month – United must put the Bournemouth game behind them and play with the same level of intensity they did against Chelsea, Norwich and at home to Partizan on Thursday, keeping up a sustained level of pressure on their opponents for longer periods in matches.
The key for Solskjaer is coming up with a plan to break down sides who pack bodies in front of goal. They painfully lacked such a plan against Bournemouth.
While the return of Paul Pogba in December will help United cut open teams due to his superb passing ability and vision, the movement of Daniel James, Martial, Rashford and Greenwood in dragging the defenders out of position to create space will be essential if United are to record victories in their upcoming games.
If they do this and are also clinical in both boxes, United – who are now 13 points behind third placed Chelsea – should beat both Brighton and Sheffield United and go into December in confident mood with the season just about still alive.
f United can come through unscathed in the coming weeks, fixtures against Manchester City and Tottenham at the start of December will provide even greater showcases to display to everyone exactly where they are at.
Against these top six rivals though, the style of playing on the break may be the only feasible way of getting a result, and it does seemingly work more effectively – with the game against Liverpool at Old Trafford an example – as there will be more space in behind as both City and Spurs will come out and attack.
The upcoming weeks are so important for Solskjaer. The defeat at Bournemouth must become just a blip, and they have to continue the form they have shown in the other games recently and go on a run now and climb up the table.
There is more than enough ability in the side to start picking up wins on a consistent basis and make something of this season, starting at Old Trafford against Brighton on Sunday.