The season could not have started any better for Manchester United. An encouraging 4-0 win against rivals Chelsea gave fans a reason to be optimistic about the season ahead, despite an underwhelming summer of transfer activity. However, two points from three seemingly winnable games against Wolves, Crystal Palace and Southampton has brought back the negativity around Old Trafford going into the international break.
What we’ve learnt
The first four games of the season have shown what United fans already knew. The squad is extremely thin and lacking in the quality needed to compete against the best teams in England. The midfield has looked especially bereft of creativity. Daniel James, a player that would be playing for Leeds in the Championship if a deal hadn't fallen through in January, has been United’s best player. David De Gea seems not to be the player he once was, and Marcus Rashford has not shown that he can be the man to rely on for goals this season. The most concern comes from the inability to hold onto a lead. This is something manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to ponder over the next couple of weeks.
Signs of progression
Overall, the performances have not correlated with the results. A little luck, and there is no doubt United would be higher up in the table. Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have been a breath of fresh air. The willingness of the team to pursue a patient build-up from the back shows a significant improvement on what fans are used to seeing United defenders do. The build-up for James’ goal against Palace especially stood out. Overall, the playing style Solskjaer is trying to implement is clear for everyone to see. With better quality players surely coming in within the next few transfer windows, United fans have reason to trust in the process at Old Trafford. The most promising sign of all is the number of players that have departed United either on loan or permanently. Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia and Ander Herrera have all departed the squad this year. Although thin, the squad now looks younger, with players that actually want to play for the club. This bodes well for the future.
The massive clear out at Old Trafford this year has come at a cost. Solskjaer has been dealt a bad hand for this season, and is forced to place an over-reliance on youth. It's high time everyone stops referring back to the Class of '92. Just because Alan Hansen was wrong about that group of players, does not mean his famous statement is not correct in 99% of other situations. It is rare you win anything with kids. With United’s worst start in Premier League history, this season feels like a burden that everyone associated with United could not do with. Regardless of the rebuilding project at hand, a club that one in seven people support should not have to sacrifice a whole season. It exposes the significant lack of planning since Sir Alex Ferguson retired even more. A lack of signings in the summer puts even more pressure on United’s board to deliver in the transfer market from here on.
If this season is indeed going to be a write-off, then here is how United can make the most of it. Play youth and see what they can do. United would be well advised to integrate Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes, James Garner and Tahith Chong into the squad to see how they would cope at the top level. Persisting with players like Nemanja Matic that Solskjaer clearly does not fancy is a waste of time for everyone intent on progression. As for United fans, patience (lots of it) is required over the next eight months. Inspiration can be taken from Tottenham and their manager Mauricio Pochettino, who cleared out the players from the previous regime, integrated youth, and has now made Tottenham a regular Champions League team. The hope is that United fans’ patience can be rewarded in the same way.