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Manchester United are in purgatory, but there is reason for optimism

A spine to build on, and two exciting prospects for a problem position

Everton v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Manchester United are in purgatory.

United are out of the Champions League and that rests on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Paul Pogba’s agent has made him irredeemable. David De Gea has cost the side in a big Champions League tie once again and what was Fred thinking when he tried to headthrust or headjolt (the referee clearly didn’t see a headbutt) Leandro Paredes in such a massive Champions League tie?

Many now believe that the side has hit its ceiling. That Solskjaer should now be sacked. That Paul Pogba should be sold in January or play in the reserves. That David De Gea should be dropped for Dean Henderson. And many expected it to happen after the defeat last midweek.

But what we were presented with in the Manchester Derby was a very different dilemma. Solskjaer’s tactics were, for the most part, good. Paul Pogba has been in good form and also came up with a statement on Instagram that led to more questions than answers. David De Gea made the only big save of the game and the team, as always, has greater balance with Fred in midfield.

Everyone is now fairly certain that no one will really suffer the consequences of the ignominy of Champions League elimination in the group stages. No one really believes that United’s performance in the Derby, or the worryingly narrow win over the Premier League’s worst side on Thursday, warrants any real praise either.

That surely can’t be right? Shouldn’t someone suffer the consequences of such indolence?

The Ringer’s Musa Okwonga speaks of an existential foul – a foul, mostly pointless, that is attempted to remind the one that is committing the foul that he/she is alive. The Manchester Derby was analogous to the nature of this Manchester United side. Nothing’s happening outside the four corners of the field and nothing of note happened inside the four corners on the weekend.

There weren’t a lot of shots from either side or any real inclination to win this game. The acerbic Roy Keane was most annoyed by the lack of yellow cards. We didn’t get an existential action of any kind and Bruno Fernandes’ low-percentage shot from distance with his weaker-foot in the dying embers of the game wasn’t hit with the hero-ball conviction that he usually possesses either.

Sport, for most people, is an escapist paradise. The last thing you want is for two sides to simply exist for 90 minutes. It casts everything into doubt. So is there anything in this season to jolt United out of this limbo? Is there a silver lining to this red cloud?

United are back in the Europa League. Not a great start but if your repulsion to the competition is bringing forth some emotion then we’re on the right track.

Now for the good parts — this would be just the competition to get United’s new signings Amad Diallo and Facundo Pellistri some game time in a position that has had a 6 year vacancy. The Europa League was central to the development of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.

However, we’ve since learnt that United will first face La Liga table toppers Real Sociedad. So maybe this isn’t ideal, but a lot could change by February.

One would hope that United also secure a place that’s closer to the top of the league table so that they can field a slightly weakened squad in Europe. And throwing in one of two young players who are playing in positions that they are perfectly suited to can’t be any worse than plugging square pegs in round holes.

Now, if they didn’t go about it with a weakened squad and actually want to win this competition, they are possibly the best-equipped they’ve ever been to do it. FiveThirtyEight’s soccer prediction model has them currently tied in 2nd place to win the entire competition. How reliable is that? Well, it also predicted United to come third in its Champions League group so we’re going with sufficiently reliable.

Speaking of numbers (just the thing to relieve one from this nauseating feeling) — Fred, Edinson Cavani, and Bruno Fernandes have been in hot form this season.

Bruno is averaging 5.6 shot-creating actions per 90 in the Premier League, which is higher than his average from last season’s average of 4.0. His non-penalty expected goals and assists are also higher at 0.63 per 90 compared to 0.40 in last season. This puts him in elite company with only Hakim Ziyech, Kevin De Bruyne, and err, Ross Barkley having similar numbers for midfielders.

To add to this, he’s also one of the most intense pressers in the league from an advanced midfield position with around 19 pressures per 90 minutes. He also clocks 2.8 interceptions and tackles per game. This is PFA player of the year form, never mind United player of the season form.

Speaking of pressing, Fred is once again one of the highest in the league with 24 pressure per 90 minutes with Everton’s Alan and West Brom’s Conor Gallagher (on loan from Chelsea) the only other midfielders who press as frequently or more. He also clocks 3.8 tackles and interceptions per game as required of a player who will break the opposition’s build up and force turnovers to regain territory. We could really use two Freds right now.

Cavani has an expected goal value of 0.75 per 90 which is an indicator that he’s getting at the end of good chances. So for all the questions regarding a lack of service, Cavani isn’t going to be complaining if this continues. His movement in the box has been well documented.

If you’ve ever watched Gary Neville on Television, you’ll often hear him talk about the most successful Premier League sides having the proverbial spine, and the 3 of them are forming what looks like a strong spine. Add a reinvigorated Harry Maguire and the option of two top goalkeepers to choose from – United should be able to hold their own against any opposition.

Much of modern football represents playing out from the back, pressing, lots of chances and goals. United now have the makings of a spine that symbolizes that in each of its members.

The fixture congestion, suspensions and injuries haven’t allowed us to see them line-up as frequently as we’d hope to. The longest we’ve seen them share the pitch was the first-half thrashing of Istanbul at home, the second-half thrashing of Southampton away and a promising 70 minutes against Paris Saint-Germain. Keep them fit and United will go places.

The lack of a wide-threat was highlighted in a previous article. We’ve already mentioned how the Diallo and Pellisitri might become a fixture in the second half of the season but Marcus Rashford hasn’t looked out of place on the right-wing. Anthony Martial has always been perfectly capable of occupying the left-wing. So that’s something for the staff to chew on as well. Juan Mata and Paul Pogba have also looked better in wide midfield roles as alternative options.

United have the chance to go on a run and capitalize on the favorable fixtures that are coming up. And then you’re quickly reminded of the defeat in Istanbul and how they failed to do that very thing.

United will get good soon. Most of the pieces are in place and there are few that need to be added around it. The frustration is justified this time but it’d be good remind ourselves that the path of purgatory does promise the kingdom of heaven. The theatre won’t be empty for long.