Manchester United beat Partizan Belgrade 3-0 on Thursday evening to secure their place in the Europa League last 32.
It extended United’s unbeaten run in the competition to 15 games, and they qualified for the knockout phase as the only side yet to concede a goal in the tournament.
For the first time since the opening day of the season and the emphatic 4-0 win against Chelsea, supporters left Old Trafford feeling pretty pleased with how their side played.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team sit in tenth position in the Premier League, in what is their worst start to a league campaign for over 30 years.
Yet, in the Europa League and Carabao Cup, fans have largely seen a different side and approach; and a team that is prepared to play front-foot football, with freedom in the attacking third, and flair.
United’s shortcomings have been well documented in the press and on social media, and the league table certainly doesn’t lie.
From Solskjaer’s perspective though, as we head towards the final international break before March, what might he be able to pencil down under the “success” column from his start to the season?
Introduction of Youngsters
Solskjaer has definitely placed his faith in the younger players. Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams have been the standout examples but Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong, and James Garner have also been given more minutes than even they might have expected.
Solskjaer was also prepared to let Chris Smalling go out on loan to Roma and promote Axel Tuanzebe in his place. Scott McTominay has enjoyed his most consistent start to a season in terms of performance and appearances too, and Marcus Rashford, in his fifth season with the first team squad, has been an almost ever-present.
With so much expected of Rashford, it’s easy to sometimes forget that he’s still just 22.
Players have left the club in 2019 that are still yet to be replaced, but in Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James, Solskjaer can point to a successful window. All three have impressed in their own way and in James, he might just have secured the bargain of the summer transfer window.
Maguire has had a few shaky moments recently but overall has helped tighten up the defence. Next to him is the outstanding Wan-Bissaka who rarely gets beaten, and looks like he could go on to become United’s best right full-back since Gary Neville.
Solskjaer has said that the January window is a difficult one to sign players, but if his record in the summer is anything to go by, then United’s recruitment could finally be in good hands.
Since he got the role on a permanent basis last March, Solskjaer had been criticised for his “in-game” management, and some of the substitutions he’s made has caused fans and pundits to scratch their head in bemusement and question his thinking.
However, against Liverpool in the league at Old Trafford a few weeks ago, and against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup, he got it pretty much spot on.
Jurgen Klopp’s European Champions were restricted to a few chances by Solskjaer’s 3-5-2 formation and United very nearly took all three points on the day, rather than just one.
More impressive was the way he tweaked his tactics in the second half against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the League Cup. There was a period when Chelsea were on top and after they equalised it looked for a moment like they might run away with it after Michy Batshuayi’s goal.
On 66 minutes Solskjaer decided to introduce Anthony Martial and although the Frenchman didn’t contribute to Rashford’s wonderful free-kick, he presented the home team with a different problem and threat from the inside left.
These are small steps of course and are completely irrelevant if things don’t improve in the Premier League at home to Brighton on Sunday. United have only won three Premier League games all season and a loss to Graham Potter’s side after a defeat to Bournemouth last weekend would really put the pressure on the Norwegian and his staff.
The best way to see the “project” through is to win football matches and while that hasn’t always been the case, there might be enough progress in other areas for Solskjaer to at least see another summer transfer window through.