We are just two months into the new season but many of the same questions remain unanswered at Manchester United. Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the right man for the job? Does Paul Pogba have a long-term future at the club? Why was a proven right winger not signed in the transfer window?
It is a concern that so many lines of enquiry remain open after another busy summer and United’s mixed start to the new campaign has done little to offer clarity on the club’s current direction.
Defeat at Goodison Park over the weekend would have seen United experience their worst start to a new top-flight season since 1987, but instead the win means they are doing better than at this stage last season and still only eight points off the top of the table.
With no side showing irresistible momentum in the Premier League so far this season there is still a huge window of opportunity to string together a run which could catapult them into the genuine title-challengers bracket. United demonstrated such an ability with their post-lockdown form last season and although unlikely, it could happen again in the coming months.
In order to accomplish such an upturn in events United need consistency, no more so than in a defence which has shown brief signs of a resurgence in recent weeks.
For a team which has only kept four clean sheets in their 12 matches this season it might seem overly positive to praise the recent defensive work since the last international break, but there is some logic to the argument.
United would have another two shutouts if not for freak own goals in wins over Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain, while their loss against Arsenal came from a penalty which was conceded by Paul Pogba, not a defender.
The unacceptable defeat at Istanbul Basaksehir came with unsung hero Victor Lindelof out of the side, although it was he who experienced a lapse of concentration to gift Everton their lead at Goodison Park last weekend. On paper it might not seem much of an improvement, if any, but there are certainly little nuggets scattered amongst the recent run of fixtures.
Most notably has been Lindelof, who often goes unnoticed next to the performances of Harry Maguire. The club captain put in one of his best ever United displays in the weekend win on Merseyside as he justified Solskjaer’s faith in him with a commanding defensive showing.
United entered the international break by winning what was arguably their most important match of the season at Everton on Saturday.
The under-pressure Reds came from behind to beat the Toffees thanks to Bruno Fernandes’ double and Edinson Cavani’s first goal for United.
United have a two-week break with many of their stars heading off on international duty – we’ll be keeping tabs on how they all perform, and on preparations for their next Premier League match against West Brom.
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Yet it is lieutenant Lindelof who holds the crucial role in bringing balance to a defensive which is starting to showcase the same swagger which saw it go on a run of nine clean sheets in 11 matches at the turn of the year. While it was Tuanzebe who stole the show for his display in the fine win over PSG last month, hindsight suggests it was Lindelof who gave him the security to play with such freedom and confidence against one of the best attacks in the world.
The Swede has a knack for producing his best performances against the most lethal opponents, but it is those errors like the one at Everton which continue to underpin his reputation at the club.
Yet when analysing his progress it is important to take into consideration how physically drained he has been this season. Lindelof was rested during the international break prior to the new domestic season and Sweden manager Janne Andersson also confirmed he would be rested this month after such a ‘brutal’ fixture schedule with United.
It is no secret United will look to sign a new central defender if the right opportunity arises next year but until then Solskjaer will be putting his faith in Lindelof ahead of the abundance of other options at the club.
It seems that in the worst case scenario the Swedish defender will drop down to third-choice at Old Trafford, but right now he has a free hit at proving himself to be the long-term solution they so desperately need.