A 1-0 defeat to Newcastle prior to the October international break seemingly put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the brink of losing his job.
Is there any hope for the Norwegian, and what could be considered a ‘successful’ season for Manchester United from here?
During the early days of his reign, Solskjaer enjoyed an exquisite honeymoon period, with victory at Paris Saint-Germain being the obvious highlight. However, a 2-0 defeat at Arsenal heralded a decline in form, made memorable by events like a 4-0 thrashing at Everton, a damaging draw at the long-doomed Huddersfield, and a resounding home defeat to relegated Cardiff on the final day.
The Numbers Behind The Decline
After a positive start to 2019/20 for United, the poor form of late 2018/19 has resurfaced at inopportune moments. Prior to United’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle, in the fixture immediately preceding the October international break, United’s meagre tally of nine points stood as the club’s worst after seven games in a top-flight season since 1989.
United’s plight is reflected with particular zeal by their away form. Given how Solskjaer masterminded six straight away wins immediately upon his appointment as United boss, it stands out with particular prominence as a major weakness. Significantly, February remains the last time United won on the road in the league, with no clean sheets recorded – or any game seeing them score multiple goals – during that sequence.
A continuation of the current plight may ultimately ruin the Red Devils’ prospects for years. Indeed, as these markets show, confidence in United’s ability to regain Champions League status via the league is waning fast. Furthermore, as evidenced by the decline of one-time title rivals Leeds, operating on a Champions League wage structure while a re-entry into the competition itself appears uncertain is a high-risk mode of existence.
While clubs of United’s calibre are wise to the same type of implosion these days, there can be no doubt that qualification for the Champions League – by any means necessary – will be of peak importance to the 13-time Premier League champions.
Is a Top-Four Finish Beyond United?
Finishing fourth is not beyond United, and any fan who believes that it is has no right to support the Red Devils. That said, for a club that never finished short of a Premier League podium under Sir Alex Ferguson, finishing fourth should never be a benchmark for success with United. Nor should it be the target where keeping Solskjaer in the hotseat is concerned.
For the more forgiving fan, finishing as the ‘best of the rest’ behind the expected top-two – for a jump of three places from 2018/19 – would likely represent sufficient progress for Solskjaer to keep his job. However, a few more bad results will almost certainly spell the end, and following the October international break, United’s quest to re-establish dominion amongst the top four begins in a very challenging fashion.
After a home match against the seemingly untouchable Liverpool, two challenging away games lie in wait. While United will be favourites against Norwich in the first of these two successive long-haul league trips, the Sky cameras have already born witness to a massive shock at Carrow Road, with Norwich ending Manchester City’s long unbeaten run after a truly heroic performance.
However, there are certainly goals to be had in what could be Solskjaer’s last chance to appease the seething masses. Norwich went into the international break without a clean sheet across any of their Premier League matches, having also conceded two or more goals in 75% of their league fixtures by that same point. With all of Norwich’s league defeats coming after conceding the first goal, scoring the opener will be one of United’s primary keys to victory in that crunch match.
The following week sees United make another difficult journey, to face a Bournemouth side that continues to grow under Eddie Howe. Ahead of their own clash with Norwich, Bournemouth’s positive approach to attacking has yielded goals in 28 out of the last 33 fixtures at the Vitality Stadium. Callum Wilson is also full-talisman these days, with Bournemouth losing just once across the last sixteen Premier League home games where he has scored.
Europa League: More Than Just a ‘Bonus’
The opportunity to arrest some dire away form is very much there, and if done successfully, the necessary improvements in home form will inevitably follow. However, assuming that no podium finish is forthcoming, only a second Europa League triumph in three years can stop 2019/20 from being perceived as a total washout.
United’s culture of success and endeavour rightly demands the presence of this trophy in the Old Trafford cabinet. As the top seeds of their Europa League group, it would be nothing short of criminal if United failed to take the initiative, but their performances to date have been underwhelming in terms of results.
While a 0-0 draw at Alkmaar provides some type of foundation on which to build a successful Europa League campaign, the fact that United won by a mere 1-0 scoreline in their easiest group game (at home vs Astana) is somewhat less encouraging. Regardless, United have the necessary skill to utilise those results as fuel towards negotiating the group with ease.
‘Success’ Reflected in Personnel Retention, or Simple Honesty.
The January transfer window will also be of massive importance to determining whether or not United’s 2019/20 campaign will be considered a success. With Romelu Lukaku gone and Alexis Sanchez very unlikely to be here next year, ensuring clarity on the mindset and feelings of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial will be crucial. Both men can be game changers, but there is an undercurrent of belief that Solskjaer lacks the experience necessary to command their full respect.
Pogba in particular is seen as a man potentially on the move, as reflected most crudely in the presence of a ‘next club’ market for the Frenchman, with former club Juventus high on the list of potential suitors come the new decade. Ultimately, if no trophies or podium finishes are forthcoming, then knowing with certainty the true intentions of United’s top earners – even in the event of their departure – would give 2019/20 some feeling of success about it.