Winner: The youth
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went into his first full season as manager of Manchester United talking up the young players at the club — not just for their potential for the future, but for their ability to contribute right away. While fans may debate whether or not Solskjaer has gone far enough in his trust in the youth (could we get a look at James Garner please?), there’s no doubting that the Norwegian is serious about the kids.
Mason Greenwood, only 18 this week, has replaced Romelu Lukaku in the squad outright, and may soon be a permanent fixture in the starting XI. Axel Tuanzebe has usurped the legion of senior center backs at the club, bar the starting duo, and even Victor Lindelöf’s place may not last the season. Tahith Chong, Brandon Williams, and Angel Gomes have all gotten minutes, albeit some more than others, and to varying degrees of success. Half a dozen academy graduates have been promoted to the first team this year, and while the results have been mixed, it’s been a breath of fresh air if nothing else.
Loser: The senior pros
The other side of the coin of fans falling in love with their exciting new teenagers (not like that) is falling out of love with the seasoned professionals whose places the kids mean to take. Gomes may have found minutes hard to come by, but even an hour against Astana — with his creativity and willingness to collect the ball in tight spaces — is enough to make us wonder what the point is of ever playing Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata.
Brandon Williams got all of 45 minutes at left-back in his senior debut, and Tuanzebe played there for the first time ever on Monday, but just the promise of something better has left fans salivating at the prospect of binning Ashley Young and Luke Shaw once and for all. Behind every call for James Garner to be given a run in the team is a burning desire to never see Nemanja Matić in a United kit again.
The collective feeling is: play the kids, because they can’t be any worse than the adults that we’ve got.
Winner: Solskjaer, director of football
In his first transfer window as permanent manager, Solskjaer had a clear profile of player that he was after. The results so far have underlined just how many more players were required — my kingdom for a midfielder! — but the signings that were made have all been successful. Harry Maguire, while not without flaws, has settled right into the backline and improved it to no end. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is already the best full-back that United have had since Patrice Evra. Daniel James, perhaps the one signing who no one really expected to contribute right away, is currently the team’s best attacker.
Solskjaer and Ed Woodward aren’t exempt from criticism for what they didn’t do, and the current structure in place behind the scenes to oversee transfers has been too shambolic for too long to be forgiven after one decent window. But, that said, the manager deserves credit for (so far) knowing how to spot a player.
Loser: Solskjaer, manager
No matter what the extenuating circumstances, United have made their worst start to a league season in 30 years. An unimpressive Europa League win against a team no one had ever heard of, and needing penalties to beat third division opposition only makes Solskjaer’s record look worse. The Norwegian should be safe from the sack, but there are legitimate questions to be asked about some of his selections, his use of substitutions, and his tactical flexibility.
Winner: Counter-attacking football
When United beat Chelsea 4-0 to start the season, optimism was sky high. The Reds used their speed on the counter-attack to undo their first opponents to devastating effect. In Monday’s match against Arsenal, Scott McTominay’s wonder strike also followed a lightning quick break. The speed of James, Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial means that any team attacking United’s now formidable rearguard is always only a pass away from being taken apart on the break.
Loser: Literally any other idea on the pitch
The good news is that Solskjaer wanted to make United a threat on the counter attack, and he succeeded. The bad news is that the team is totally incapable of doing anything else. Any team that allows United to have possession can rest safely in the knowledge that without space in behind to attack, the Reds have no plan whatsoever. Lacking a playmaker to pry open a stubborn defense — Lingard isn’t good enough, Mata is finished, and Paul Pogba is either injured, assigned to a deeper role, or thoroughly unarsed — United resort to sterile passing patterns that more often than not go nowhere.