As the international break came to an end the Premier League returned into focus, there was no more fitting way to shine the spotlight back on Manchester United than to witness their captain Harry Maguire getting deservedly sent off for two rash tackles in England’s defeat by Denmark.
An imposing figure as United went on a 14-match unbeaten run at the end of last season to surge up to third place, Maguire looks a shadow of himself after a turbulent summer. The exact same can be said of the club he represents.
It is nearly two weeks since United were thrashed 6-1 by Tottenham at Old Trafford in one of the most stunning results of recent times and the dust has barely settled, such were the reverberations around the footballing world.
Harry Maguire looks stunned as Manchester United slip to a 6-1 defeat by Tottenham
Maguire looks on as he is sent off playing for England against Denmark on Wednesday night
The unanimous verdict is that the result was a long time coming, the culmination of a couple of months of stagnation, unrest and ill-preparation for the new season.
The warning signs were there two weeks before when United were deservedly beaten at home by Crystal Palace, but rather than up their game for the visit of their former manager Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side merely showed that Spurs are a few goals better than Palace, and United are stuck in the mud.
MAN UNITED’S NEXT 6 FIXTURES
Newcastle (A), October 17 – difficulty rating 5/10
PSG (A), October 20 – 8/10
Chelsea (H), October 24 – 7/10
RB Leipzig (H), October 28 – 7/10
Arsenal (H), November 1 – 6/10
Istanbul Basaksehir (A), November 4 – 5/10
Everton (A), November 7 – 7/10
It doesn’t get any easier for Solskjaer from here, however. Starting with Saturday night’s trip to Newcastle, United play seven matches in 21 days. The packed schedule will effect every team this season, but it is the difficulty level of those seven games which will have United fans worried.
The trip to St James’ Park, where United lost last season, is the easiest of the lot. After that comes the toughest of Champions League openers away to last season’s runners-up Paris Saint-Germain. Then an improving and expensively assembled Chelsea side come to Old Trafford, before Champions League semi-finalists RB Leipzig hunt for a scalp at the Theatre of Dreams four days later. Arsenal’s visit on November 1 makes it three tough tests at home on the spin, before the relative respite of a trip to Champions League debutants Istanbul Basaksehir. The three-week rollercoaster then ends with a trip to Goodison Park to face Premier League pace-setters Everton.
If United perform as they did against Spurs, they will be looking at seven defeats, of that there can be little doubt. So the only option for Solskjaer and his side is to improve, drastically and rapidly.
United went further in Europe than any Premier League side last season, losing their Europa League semi-final to Sevilla on August 16, so they have had the least preparation for the new season of anyone. The last two weeks’ training should in theory help, but with most players away on international duty and a 6-1 defeat to stew on, its effects cannot be solely relied upon. Still, United fans will be rightly expecting a win at Newcastle on Saturday night.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces a three-week period that could make or break his United career
The other factor to consider since the Tottenham defeat, and a major one in the negativity surrounding the club at the moment, is the transfer market. On deadline day, United brought in Brazilian left back Alex Telles and Uruguayans at opposite ends of their career in striker Edinson Cavani and Facundo Pellestri, though neither can be expected to make an instant impact. Cavani is ruled out of the Newcastle trip by his isolation period and 18-year-old Pellestri will need time to settle. While Cavani should make an impact in the coming weeks, and will be especially motivated should he get the chance against former club PSG, it was a disappointing window for United, who missed out on Jadon Sancho and failed to significantly improve their squad, much to the annoyance of their fanbase.
Central defence is the major issue, even when Maguire is on form, and question marks remain over goalkeeper David De Gea. The area United splashed the most out on, with the £40m acquisition of attacking midfielder Donny van de Beek, is arguably the one they least needed to strengthen with Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba – who have both been grumbling during the international break – on the books.
One thing United do have now though is depth, even if the squad is a little unbalanced, and it will be interesting to see if Solskjaer decides to rotate for the Newcastle clash ahead of tougher tests, or if he goes all out for the win to try and get some momentum going in the Premier League. One more defeat from matches against Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton and the pressure will still be on Solskjaer, two defeats and he could be facing the sack.
Manchester United signed Edinson Cavani (left) and Alex Telles (right) on deadline day
The game that will be making Solskjaer and United fans most nervous will be the trip to PSG next week. Another Spurs-style drubbing and the manager will be a dead-man walking. If they can come out of their first three European matches with six points and no embarrassing defeats, however, they will be delighted. Four points would not be the end of the world, though anything less would again heap the pressure on the manager.
It is perhaps unfair to be scrutinising Solskjaer’s position ahead of certain board members in charge of assembling his squad, but while the Glazers remain in charge the only position up for debate is the manager’s, especially with Mauricio Pochettino waiting in the wings.
What Solskjaer must do is arrest this slump quickly. He cannot afford a start to this season like he did last, when United found themselves in 10th position after 11 matches. It was a similar story the previous season, when United slipped into mid-table before Christmas under Mourinho and Solskjaer was brought in to replace him.
Worryingly for United though, they do tend to go on long runs of form, bad or good, under Solskjaer, so there is a feeling this slump may have only just started. Whether you’re a fan of the club or not, the next three weeks will be box office viewing.