Six weeks ago, things looked very different at Manchester United as Burnley left Old Trafford with all three points in a 2-0 victory with boos ringing in the ears of the United players and management at half and full time. Fast forward to the present day and United have gone 11 games unbeaten winning 8 and drawing 3 since that defeat to the Clarets. In those 11 games, the reds have conceded just 2 goals and have scored 29, progressing through the Europa League, FA Cup and closing the gap on Chelsea in the Premier League.
United fans have a new Portuguese magnífico in Bruno Fernandes and a loanee back up striker who has a knack of scoring goals from inside the penalty area – just like his current manager did. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has masterminded 3 victories over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City already this season, the third being a 2-0 home win, which was the first home United victory over City in 5 seasons. Players like Luke Shaw, Fred and Nemanja Matic have become un-droppable with the Serbian Matic going from outcast to about to sign a new contract at the club. How things has changed.
Harry Maguire continues to marshall the defence and appears to win everything in the air. His captaincy on the pitch has helped Shaw and Williams as he constantly coaches those players through games. Eric Bailly looks like the player who impressed in his first season at Old Trafford and has slotted in nicely next to Maguire. Wan-Bissaka’s defensive performances this season have been so impressive, too. It is no surprise his nickname is ‘Spider’ given his superb tackling where he always manages to stretch a leg out to tackle the opposition when you don’t expect him to. Recently he has shown the attacking side of his game also, which has been coached into him by Michael Carrick and Solskjaer.
Eyebrows were raised when United signed Odion Ighalo on transfer deadline day as cover for the injured Marcus Rashford. Ighalo appeared to be far from United’s first choice with bids going in for Bournemouth’s Josh King, but it appears to be fate that lifelong United fan Ighalo ended up wearing the famous red shirt. Reminiscent of the January signing of Henrik Larsson back in 2007, Ighalo has hit the ground running scoring 4 goals in 3 starts. With an ability to hold the ball up, play with his back to goal and the old fashioned striker attribute of being a penalty box striker, Ighalo is often in the right place at the right time. Present day strikers tend to play out wide and drift inside or like to take several players on before shooting, whereas Ighalo is similar to Solskjaer or Gary Lineker in the way he likes staying in the penalty area and gobbling up any chances.
Bruno Fernandes has walked into the Theatre of Dreams and lit the place up like Eric Cantona did back in 1992. Back then United were struggling to score, Mark Hughes and Brian McClair were huffing and puffing but the goals dried up until the final piece of the jigsaw arrived and United went from a backfiring banger to a finely tuned sports car. Fernandes has picked up the baton at United who now look a different proposition going forward. Gone is the slow build up and sideways passing replaced with an attitude to get forward with every opportunity. The rest of the squad appear to have upped their game by at least 10% since the Portuguese arrived. There is a buzz in the stands with the United fans falling in love with Fernandes and already singing about the Red Devils’ number 18 in the same bracket as another signing from Sporting Lisbon in Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fernandes has brought a swagger to the club that has been sadly lacking for a number of years. He is a box to box player who regularly runs half the length of the pitch and loiters on the edge of the opposition’s penalty area waiting for chances to fall to him. In the recent derby day win, Fernandes set off sprinting from the edge of his own penalty area and arrived on the edge of City’s area unmarked. Had the likes of Dan James looked up more often surely Fernandes would have found himself with time and space to pick his spot and score. That type of player has been sorely lacking.
His link up play with Juan Mata in the home leg against Club Brugge was superb with both players holding the baton, orchestrating everything and pulling the strings. United finally have a quality dead ball taker with Harry Maguire benefiting the most by winning plenty of headers in the opposition penalty box.
Fernandes is also a player who gets you off your seat. With the pass with the outside of his boot in Austria to set up Ighalo for his goal then the flick to set up the Nigerian who hit the post with his next effort, Bruno is mirroring what Cantona did in a red shirt.
It is noticeable how the whole team now press from the front, with Martial chasing Man City’s Ederson into errors, Ighalo running back forty yards after losing possession and McTominay and Fred hunting all over the pitch and nicking the ball back at every opportunity. Confidence is huge in football and United are doing all the positive things now whilst on this fine run – things they weren’t doing back in January when the side lost 4 games.
Eyebrows were raised in the summer when Solskjaer claimed the side would score plenty of goals still with the likes of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood at the club, all coming after letting Lukaku depart. The Norwegian has been proved right with Martial having one of his best scoring seasons, Rashford similarly until his injury and Greenwood scoring 12 goals in his breakthrough season where he has been used sparingly. The future is frightening for Greenwood. Able to score with both feet and with deadly accuracy in front of goal, he has a real chance of setting a few Premier League goal scoring records in his career to challenge Alan Shearer and Sergio Aguero.
Should Ighalo continue to impress and be offered a permanent contract, United could have 4 strikers of the ilk of Cole, Yorke, Solskjaer and Sheringham. That would allow United to concentrate on improving the midfield which until recently has been the club’s achilles heel.
Whether Paul Pogba stays and proves his worth or not, Manchester United need to strengthen in midfield and build on the success of Fernandes. A right sided forward/midfielder is a must as the club have a host of players who prefer to play on the left and cut inside. With the defence picking itself and with arguably two players for each position at the back, United can concentrate on doing the same in midfield; an area that has let them down, especially in opening defensive minded teams up.
Manchester United have managed to get themselves into a great position going into the final stages of the season. Doing well in two cup competitions and in the race for a Champions League spot, the hope is that the team have learned from the mistakes of last season which petered out spectacularly and can have something positive to show for their efforts.