Tactical improvement; Rashford and McTominay shine; New signings stepping up
Thursday 31 October 2019 22:58, UK
Have Manchester United turned a corner? Sky Sports News North West reporter James Cooper looks back at a positive run of results for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and what it could mean going forward.
The sight of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looking relaxed and even happy on the touchline during a Manchester United match told you everything you need to know about how important the last 10 days have been in changing the mood at the club and, potentially, the direction in which it's heading under his stewardship.
We're not talking giant leaps here, rather baby steps, but three away wins on the bounce following a morale-boosting home draw with Liverpool have shown Solskjaer's ability to do something Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal were unable to do in their darkest days: arrest the slide and change the narrative.
Even the United players seemed energised and inspired by Marcus Rashford's spectacular winner at Stamford Bridge, just look at Marcos Rojo's face. The fans have found their hopes realised of late, rather than seeing their expectations and fears confirmed.
Solskjaer's tactical acumen has been called into question, but in the two most recent games against top-six rivals Liverpool and Chelsea, he's out-thought and out-fought managers who are placed on higher pedestals.
There's a school of thought that suggests if Liverpool had had another five minutes at Old Trafford they would have found a winner, United had run out of gas, but on Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge they seemed to find more in the tank, perhaps by taking a breather mid-game as Chelsea rallied and scored, but the visitors looked strong in the final minutes.
The decision to switch to a 5-4-1 formation in the wake of Michy Batshuayi's equaliser proved to be crucial and while the pace of Dan James, Anthony Martial and Rashford is correctly highlighted, it was Fred's run that brought about the decisive free-kick.
The Brazilian told me recently we'd see just what he can do if he was given a run of games and although he's yet to stamp his mark on a match this season, like the rest of the team he's growing in confidence after five starts in the last six fixtures.
Yes, Manchester United found a way to win despite claiming just 34 per cent of the possession, but it was a victory delivered by players who've come through the system at Old Trafford, know what's expected and hold dear the DNA and values that Solskjaer prizes so highly.
Birthday boy Rashford gets the plaudits, and quite rightly, shrugging off penalty failure at Carrow Road to score from the spot and delivering a long-range free-kick that had all the hallmarks of Cristiano Ronaldo's expertise and training ground discipline.
Rashford looked short on confidence, fitness and ideas up against AZ Alkmaar and Newcastle and whether its the return of Anthony Martial, who he linked up with so well at Norwich, or not, the England striker has rediscovered his belief and pace.
But this was a night when Scott McTominay once again stood tallest, providing leadership and a driving force from the middle of the pitch that was undiminished despite a first-half booking.
Time and time again his interceptions and tackles broke up Chelsea's attacking momentum and gave United the chance to clear their lines.
It's telling that as things have improved in the last four games, Paul Pogba's absence has become less of an issue, he'll be welcomed back when he does return, but in his absence McTominay has shone.
Special mention must also go to Brandon Williams, highlighted by Solskjaer after the game, the 19-year-old possesses the sort of fight and determination his manager demonstrated as a player.
Another positive is the integration of United's newest acquisitions, something that will give fans optimism ahead of a January window when there will be a concerted effort to bring in more quality to bolster the team's attacking options and threat.
Dan James may have played more first-team football than had been envisioned when he arrived from Swansea, but he's provided telling moments of quality whenever he's pulled on the number 21 shirt and has probably been the most consistent performer so far this season.
Aaron Wan Bissaka's introduction has been somewhat quieter, in keeping with his personality, but he has taken life at Old Trafford in his stride and Harry Maguire's impact on the back-line has seen Manchester United defend with belief rather than bewilderment.
The three of them may have cost a pretty penny between them but three successes from three purchases embody the belief inside the corridors of power that recruitment challenges are being overcome.
Suddenly the fixtures ahead are looking like opportunities and not banana skins, but we're still talking about a Manchester United side that finds itself five points above the relegation places after 10 games. Yes, they're in seventh spot, but they could be back in the bottom half if they don't carry this renewed vigour into a trip to Bournemouth where they've won on their last three visits.
Last season Frank Lampard outlined his management credentials with a Carabao Cup win over Manchester United at Old Trafford, a year later Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not have beaten a full-strength Chelsea team, but his smile's showing that even he might be starting to enjoy the ride again."