Less than a fortnight ago, Manchester United travelled to Newcastle having had as many weeks to ponder on a thrashing by Tottenham Hotspur. That the 6-1 humbling had been administered by José Mourinho did not help matters. Concern over Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s suitability and shortcomings abound, and even some rose-tinted pining for Mourinho. Optimism from last season’s restart form and third-place finish had waned in one transfer window and four games.
In Tyneside, United kept plugging away and, with five minutes to go, found a lead through Bruno Fernandes. It was Manchester United in its purest and most emphatic. Every touch for the goal which unfolded down Newcastle’s left during the counter was perfect and at speed. Donny van de Beek exchanging with Fernandes; van de Beek finding Juan Mata; Mata without checking to Marcus Rashford who had covered most of the pitch in anticipation; Rashford driving forwards and dragging defenders away in the box before releasing Fernandes; Fernandes’s set and wonderful finish. All while rapidly on the move. It sparked two further late goals and, perhaps, some belief.
Rashford provided a couple of assists and a goal, but Mata’s composed contribution for 90 minutes against Newcastle was equally vital. Also notable was Paul Pogba benched and Fred profiting from the demotion. Fred, starting his first match of the league campaign, was instrumental in United chasing down third last season and could count himself unlucky to only have featured in the league cup thus far. Pogba later replaced Fred but it was van de Beek’s introduction which helped United more.
Solskjær stuck with Fred at the expense of Pogba against PSG in Paris. On this occasion, though, Pogba’s 20-minute cameo turned the tide of the game giving United the ascendancy. It felt entirely deliberate from Solskjær, opting for the energy and reliability of Scott McTominay supporting Fred before deploying Pogba later on when the match was stretched. It worked beautifully for the manager.
As a separate consequence, Solskjær’s handling of Pogba, while looking dicey at points last season, now appears to wield a measure of authority. Good results will do that. But a fresh start offered since the restart and then this season hasn’t given Pogba any guarantees, and he was duly dropped for his performance against Spurs. The positive reaction from Pogba, though, earned him a place in the team to face Leipzig in which he thrived in the space afforded there too.
Fred played the full game in Paris and every minute since, including the 5-0 dismantling of Leipzig. On current form – Fred hassled and hustled three goals out of Julian Nagelsmann’s side – the busy, forward-passing midfielder should be one of the first names on the team sheet. Fred is a player who benefits from featuring regularly and has already repaid that faith in his recent consistency. While it is true that Fred cannot perform the defensive midfield role sitting in front of the defence on his own, having a tendency to get dragged out of position, he disrupts the opposition and sets off United’s attacks better than anyone. Fred, along with Fernandes, dictates United’s tempo and makes those around him better – not dissimilar to Michael Carrick but achieved in a completely different way.
If we assume Fernandes is another given to start, where does that leave Pogba or Van de Beek, nevermind poor Mata? The perseverance from United during the dying embers of the Newcastle match was a result of Solskjær shuffling his pack and with the option of van de Beek. Better alternatives will, in turn, increase competition for places and hopefully fewer instances of complacency prevalent in previous years. Mata orchestrating the 3-0 win at Brighton earned him his spot in the next game and others in his position will need to rise to that.
With other formations now viable, United also no longer have to rely on one or three forwards as a default. Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Rashford all arguably benefit at partnering as split strikers, when required. Rashford looked rejuvenated as a substitute for Greenwood – both scored superb goals against Leipzig – and an overreliance on either or Martial is not ideal.
Much was made of van de Beek’s exclusion before and after the Newcastle game. Bad results will do that. Solskjær, however, is well versed in squad rotation with quality players. Carving out minutes amongst Teddy Sheringham, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole worked out pretty well for Solskjær and United.