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Crunch time for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United: Five games to shape their season?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is preparing for a hectic period that could dictate his Manchester United future, writes Adam Bate
Last Updated: 18/10/19 9:04am
How low is too low? That is the question that could grow in importance for Manchester United in the coming days, weeks and months. All the indications are that there is a real willingness to commit to the club's current course for the long term. That is good news for the struggling Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But events can make a mockery of the best-laid plans.
A glance at the forthcoming fixture list will be enough to send a shudder. The fortnight they had to dwell on the defeat to Newcastle that left Manchester United languishing in the bottom half of the Premier League for the duration of the international break was not ideal. But even that could soon feel like relative calm given the storm that looms on the horizon.
Liverpool are the visitors on Sunday. That Liverpool. The Premier League leaders. The team that has won every game they have played in the competition dating back to early March. The club with as many wins as United have picked up points in that time. The arch-rivals back on their perch. Defeat to them is sure to add an air of urgency to the predicament.
But it is what follows that could define United's season. A run of four consecutive away fixtures. In happier times, none would be described as particularly daunting. In the current climate, any of them could result in another damaging defeat. United have yet to win away from home in any competition this season. In fact, they have not won away in seven months.
Man Utd's away form
Mar 10 – Arsenal 2-0 Man Utd
Mar 16 – Wolves 2-1 Man Utd
Apr 2 – Wolves 2-1 Man Utd
Apr 16 – Barcelona 3-0 Man Utd
Apr 21 – Everton 4-0 Man Utd
May 5 - Huddersfield 1-1 Man Utd
Aug 19 – Wolves 1-1 Man Utd
Aug 31 – Southampton 1-1 Man Utd
Sep 22 – West Ham 2-0 Man Utd
Oct 3 – AZ Alkmaar 0-0 Man Utd
Oct 6 – Newcastle 1-0 Man Utd
There is a trip to Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League. Then they go to Norwich, a team in the Premier League relegation zone but one that already has a win over Manchester City. Chelsea failed to win their first four home games under Frank Lampard but they will expect to beat United in the Carabao Cup. Then it is Bournemouth away to kick off November.
That game against Eddie Howe's side is a little over a fortnight away but the significance of what happens between now and the full-time whistle that day can hardly be overstated. Just two points outside the drop zone as it stands, if United fail to win any of these next three Premier League games they can expect to find themselves in those relegation places.
Man Utd's next five games
Oct 20 – Man Utd vs Liverpool
Liverpool go into the game as the Premier League leaders and on a run of 17 consecutive wins in the competition. Victory for Jurgen Klopp’s team at Old Trafford on Sunday will equal the all-time top-flight record of successive wins in English football.
Oct 24 – Partizan vs Man Utd
Partizan are currently top of Europa League Group L but they are ahead of United only on goals scored so this could determine who comes out on top in the end. The atmosphere is likely to be intimidating but the Serbs did lose at home to Vozdovac earlier this month.
Oct 27 – Norwich vs Man Utd
Norwich might be the only team in the Premier League with a bigger injury crisis than United and that has played its part in killing the momentum for the Canaries. Even so, memories of their win over Manchester City at Carrow Road are still fresh.
Oct 30 – Chelsea vs Man Utd
Chelsea lost 4-0 at Old Trafford on the opening weekend but Frank Lampard will be out to avenge that defeat in the Carabao Cup. Both managers are likely to rest players given the schedule but that is a risk for Solskjaer given that defeat could dampen the mood further.
Nov 2 – Bournemouth vs Man Utd
Although Bournemouth beat Louis van Gaal’s side in the first meeting between these clubs in 26 years back in 2015, United have an excellent record against the Cherries since then. They are two points behind Eddie Howe’s team as it stands. A loss here could be costly.
Instinctively, it is tempting to think United have too much quality to still be down there in the spring but something will need to change. Since Romelu Lukaku's late winner against Southampton at Old Trafford in the first week of March, United have picked up fewer points than 14 of the other 16 teams to have played in the Premier League last season and this.
This is half a season of dismal form now. It is no blip.
Even so, there are reasons for hope. Some key players are returning to fitness. Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard, Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are all expected to be available again this month. That transforms the team from the one that produced such a limp display in that defeat to Newcastle last time out. It is a start.
If Solskjaer can coax a win or two from his team once they are back to full strength, that could be enough to get through to the January transfer window. These windows are now the prism through which Solskjaer and his advocates are viewing this entire Manchester United project. It is not about months and years, not even seasons. It is about windows.
Maybe a change of luck will help too. While Ed Woodward might rue not delving deeper into the underlying numbers that showed United were nowhere near as good as they had appeared during Solskjaer's caretaker period in charge, those same statistics at least offer some reassurance this season. United have not been quite as bad as results suggest.
In fact, Opta's expected-goals model suggests that no team in the Premier League has restricted opportunities for their opponent as effectively as United - not even Liverpool. In front of goal, they have struggled to create, particularly, from open play but if they had just converted their penalties this year they would have the seventh-best attack. Small margins.
In the board room, United crave continuity. Among the supporter base, the well of goodwill has not yet run dry. Solskjaer is still a much-loved figure. The Glazer ownership are not. That will mean a large section of supporters will be keen to target their criticism elsewhere. The previous managerial sackings have also served to dampen enthusiasm for another change.
But that question still lingers. How low is too low? Even for fans whose primary focus will always be the debts that the Glazer family have laden on their club, they must accept there is a benchmark. United's owners might well be denying them the opportunity to compete with Manchester City. This club should still be able to compete with Bournemouth.
"We have given ourselves a tough task of making the top six, never mind the top four," said Solskjaer earlier this month. The table shows they are 12th. Where Manchester United find themselves after this next run of games will surely dictate whether he will have the chance to complete that tough task. He needs time. But he must buy that time for himself.