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Starting XI: The Manchester United Season So Far

With #OleOut trending and a top four spot looking like a pipe dream, it’s been a rough start for the Reds

Newcastle United v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Some thoughts on a very disappointing start to Manchester United’s season...

(1) Manchester United crashed into the international break with a downright humiliating defeat at Newcastle last weekend. The same Newcastle that’s on the verge of implosion, with a playing squad openly questioning their manager and fans boycotting the catastrophic reign of Mike Ashley. What should have been an easy win to climb the Premier League table — and end seven winless months on the road — instead heaped ever more uncertainty and angst onto the Reds.

(2) After the loss at St. James’ Park, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried to look on the bright side:

The international break is at the perfect time because [the players’] heads need a bit of airing. It wouldn’t help to have a meeting tomorrow. They will go away with their national teams, meet their teammates, and come back fresh. We have had a good time together, we have prepared since the first day of preseason, we have stuck to the same principles. We have not got the result today, but we have to keep carrying on.

(3) To be fair, the mounting injuries aren’t helping. Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelöf, and Jesse Lingard all missed time over the past few weeks. That’s a lot of talent and firepower stuck on the sidelines. Most of them are inching closer to full fitness and stand a decent chance of playing against Liverpool on October 20. On the downside, Mason Greenwood withdrew from the England U21 squad on Monday with an undisclosed injury.

(4) Pogba’s absence, in particular, leaves Solskjaer with few options in midfield. But the one player that he hasn’t turned to — 18-year-old James Garner — might prove the best replacement. Garner has destroyed U23 competition so far this season, scoring six times and chipping in with an assist in the EFL Trophy. United’s senior midfield, meanwhile, has scored just once. It’s understandable that Ole fears pairing Garner with Scott McTominay at the base of midfield, but can it really get any worse than whatever Fred’s doing out there?

(5) One bright spot for the Reds has been the much-improved defense. After heavy investment over the summer, United finally look solid at the back with AWB and Maguire slotting in seamlessly. They’ve conceded just eight goals through as many Premier League matches, a mark that only Liverpool, Leicester City, and Sheffield United better. Clean sheets in both Europa League matches, too.

(6) The problems, unfortunately, lie further up field. After tearing Chelsea apart 4-0 in the opener, United have only scored five goals in the other seven league matches. That’s also the only game — in all competitions — that United scored more than once. It’s been an unmitigated disaster on the offensive end. Marcus Rashford shows no improvement in front of goal, Anthony Martial can’t get on the field, and Jesse Lingard looks totally lost. Where would United be without Daniel James’s hot start?

(7) The #OleOut movement is more than a little premature, but the simultaneously awful starts for both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur reignited this managerial firestorm. When José Mourinho left last December, Mauricio Pochettino reportedly stood out as the strong favorite to replace him on a full-time basis. Solskjaer’s remarkable run as caretaker scuttled those plans, but both clubs might now be looking for a change sooner rather than later. United briefed the media that Ole retains the club’s full backing, but that might just be the dreaded vote of confidence.

(8) To listen to Ole, the players’ attitude and effort are top-notch. If so, that doesn’t say much for their talent. Backing the players in public might have seemed a wise decision in the aftermath of Mourinho’s turbulent third season, but it now risks making the manager sound delusional. United should be beating the likes of Newcastle — no excuses.

(9) The only indication that Solskjaer recognizes the depths of United’s current predicament comes through the occasional media report of the boss raging at players behind closed doors. He supposedly gave the squad the hairdryer treatment after Sunday’s loss at Newcastle, even accusing them of putting him at risk of the sack. In public, though, it’s all sunshine. Again, that might have made sense in the immediate post-Mourinho timeframe, but it’s stretching his credibility to the breaking point. Is this approach really getting better results? And, to be fair, Mourinho’s assessment of this group — from both a talent and attitude standpoint — seems far closer to reality than Ole’s.

(10) In fact, José looks downright prophetic. The former boss took tons of heat from fans and media for playing Rashford out wide, with most calling for him to play through the middle. Well, if the first two months of this season are anything to go by, Rashford is no #9. He struggles to get on the ball when played up top and hasn't shown the finishing ability needed to rack up a hefty goal tally. Mourinho took a stand on a lot of issues — from wanting Ivan Perisić, Romelu Lukaku, and Harry Maguire to handing Scott McTominay playing time — that divided opinion (and that’s putting it nicely). Time will tell, but it’s looking pretty good for The Special One.

(11) And, sadly, his comment that United’s second place finish in 2017/18 should rank among his best achievements no longer sounds so silly. The squad that outpaced Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, and Arsenal — and defeated Ajax in the Europa League final — is not that different from the one that currently sits closer to relegation than the top eight. It might be years (and untold amounts of £££) before United gets to 81 points again. Who’s laughing now?