Manchester United reporter notebook: How United are placed ahead of international break
Sky Sports News' North West reporter James Cooper analyses how Manchester United are placed ahead of the international break
By James Cooper, Sky Sports News' North West Reporter
Last Updated: 02/12/19 4:04pm
If emerging from the last international break on the front foot was crucial for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then the manner in which they went into this latest interval is just as important.
When it is time to review this season as a whole perhaps Manchester United's third goal against Brighton, straight after the visitors scored, will prove to be of great significance as they go into a fortnight away from domestic matters with more positivity around the squad.
This is a break, after all, in which a group of players, with Solskjaer's blessing, have taken it upon themselves to go out to Dubai with members of the coaching staff to continue the hard work, just in the sunshine.
The United boss has remained in Manchester but perhaps this shows a growing spirit among the squad or at least some sense of recognition that it is the group as a whole that have a shared responsibility for the fortunes of the club, and not just the legend in the hot seat.
Solskjaer tellingly also mentioned new coach Martyn Pert among his coaching staff in his programme notes prior to the win over Brighton - the strength and conditioning expert has clearly made a good impression.
The fact that the players are footing the bill for the trip and not Manchester United certainly suggests a collective will to start finding some answers to the questions that have been asked so far this season.
While it has been a season of few highs so far, there have been rays of light among some early campaign gloom, with two academy products shining through especially.
The concern shown in the wake of Scott McTominay's ankle problems over the past fortnight demonstrates his growing importance to the team with even the harshest critics among Manchester United's followers admitting that a promising relationship in the centre of the park appears to be developing between the Scot and Fred.
Whether that blossoms into its full potential probably depends on the fitness of both players and also that of Paul Pogba - but more of that in a moment.
A gold star can also be awarded to young full-back Brandon Williams, who has certainly not been overawed by his introduction to first-team life. His season started with an outing for the U21s at Rotherham but the 19-year-old's latest appearance against Brighton saw him receive a standing ovation when he was substituted close to full-time.
Some uncompromising Williams challenges at Chelsea and Old Trafford, showing the kind of enthusiasm and fight demanded by fans across the country, have lifted spirits.
Recruitment - pass marks?
Dan James has been another success story.
Having already made 19 appearances for club and country this campaign, Solskjaer was desperate to give the Welshman a rest but had to wait until the home game against Partizan Belgrade to do it.
Another player showing fight, spirit, determination and the ability to keep getting up off the ground after stepping up to the rigours of Premier League life, the recruitment department will be pleased with how the 22-year-old is shaping up.
His fellow newbies are not doing too badly either, although fans are yet to witness a 'wow' moment from Harry Maguire. The defence does appear to be more solid but boasts just two Premier League clean sheets, both at home, to Chelsea and Leicester.
There is hope inside Old Trafford that Maguire will grow into an important leader, but right now he is still acclimatising and that has allowed the likes of McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe, though young, to show their character and credentials.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is also learning the ropes and settling into a new environment, in which he arrived on the back of a £50m transfer.
His ability, whether it be through his pace or expertise with one-on-one situations is not in doubt, but Manchester United fans are desperate to see him exploit attacking situations with more killer balls into the opposition penalty area.
So the evidence is there - recruitment has improved and is improving but more quality is needed. Manchester United have never had a bigger or more technical net to cast across worldwide talent. The number-crunchers and specialists are looking at hundreds of players but January may prove to be a problem with potential targets likely to be involved in the Champions League or employed by teams who know United need to bolster their squad and will charge a pretty penny.
That is nothing new but it may prevent a striker or attacking midfielder from arriving before the summer with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic no longer viable signing options.
Paul Pogba and what comes next?
But what about Paul Pogba and where is his head at right now? If he still harbours ambitions of a move to another club, January might come too soon for him as he has missed the last six weeks and has only just had the cast removed from his ankle.
In his absence, United have navigated through choppy post-Newcastle waters and put together a run of five wins from their last six games in all competitions. Pogba remains the most talented and gifted player on the club's books right now and his reintegration into the first-team structure will be one of Solskjaer's big challenges after the international break.
Another challenge for a team looking to continue to assert their identity comes in the form of United's next opponents, Sheffield United. Their players all understand their roles and what Chris Wilder demands from them.
Solskjaer's men now find themselves a point behind the Blades but Bramall Lane will provide a stiff examination for a team who have only managed a single Premier League away win since a victory at Crystal Palace at the end of February.
Nine points still separate seventh-placed Manchester United from the top four positions that remain their manager's target. It might be that the cup competitions represent the club's best opportunity for success and, potentially, a route to one of the European tournaments next season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will hope that he is now presiding over a group of players and a club equipped to make positive steps forward.
The alarm bells have stopped ringing for the time being but it is the trip to South Yorkshire that will show how useful this latest break has been.