Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have avoided the chop so far but Manchester United’s manager certainly isn’t out of the woods yet.
He always knew a tough set of fixtures lay in store throughout October and November, games that would test how far United have progressed in nearly three years of his leadership.
So far, United have failed the test miserably, losing 4-2 at Leicester City, humiliated 5-0 by Liverpool and outclassed by Manchester City last time out in a game they were fortunate to only lose by two.
Bruno Fernandes (left) and Cristiano Ronaldo (right) couldn’t hide their frustration during Manchester United’s 5-0 defeat by Liverpool last month
Under pressure manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has held crisis talks with senior players
They have twice required moments of Cristiano Ronaldo magic to take four points from the available six against Atalanta, keeping their Champions League campaign alive.
But there’s no hiding the stench of weakness and vulnerability around Old Trafford. Even matches such as Saturday’s trip to Watford, which ordinarily they should win comfortably, have become fraught with danger for Solskjaer.
After that, it’s Villarreal, Chelsea and Arsenal in quick succession. There has to be positive results in those games otherwise Solskjaer may not even be around to oversee a kinder festive schedule.
It’s been a tough watch for United fans in recent weeks with four defeats from six in the league
Solskjaer summoned six senior players – captain Harry Maguire, Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelof and Nemanja Matic – to a meeting at Carrington on Thursday morning to figure out how to salvage the season and save his job.
There are certainly plenty in the side who must now step up and perform if United are to avoid another season drifting by without success.
There was always going to be a lull with Bruno Fernandes, who had been in outstanding form ever since he arrived at United in January 2020.
Just the four goals so far this season – of which three came on the opening weekend against Leeds – points to a man out of sorts but really the Portuguese is a victim of his own success.
28 goals and 17 assists last season was always going to be a hard act to follow, so what is more worrying is that Fernandes has cut such a frustrated figure so far this season.
Fernandes hasn’t been afraid to show his frustration on the pitch as United have stumbled
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Saturday Watford (A)
Tuesday Villarreal (A)
November 28 Chelsea (A)
December 2 Arsenal (H)
December 5 Crystal Palace (H)
December 8 Young Boys (H)
He is far more likely to complain to team-mates when something doesn’t quite come off and there were rumblings of discontent from the Fernandes camp about Solskjaer and his coaching team after the City match.
There are other mitigating factors. United haven’t been awarded as many penalties this season as last – Fernandes blasted one over in the 1-0 home defeat to Aston Villa in September – so his goal return is smaller (he scored 13 spot-kicks last season).
The other is the inescapable conclusion that Fernandes must be feeling the effects of playing so much football, being one of the first names on Solskjaer’s teamsheet.
Between June 2020 and the end of the Euros, Fernandes played in 87 matches for club and country – more than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues.
This season, he has started every Premier League and Champions League game for United, came off the bench in the Carabao Cup loss to West Ham plus featured in another seven games for Portugal.
It’s clear Fernandes could do with some respite but United need him to keep draining the tank.
He may grow frustrated when the intricate passes he attempts don’t quite come off but when they do – notably the assists for Ronaldo against Atalanta and Tottenham – it is quite spectacular.
The Portuguese is certainly still capable of moments of genius – such as his assist for Cristiano Ronaldo during the 2-2 draw away to Atalanta in the Champions League
The fact Harry Maguire felt compelled to put his fingers in his ears while celebrating his goal for England against Albania shows a man struggling under the weight of criticism at the moment.
Maguire enjoyed a very good summer at the Euros but hasn’t been able to carry that into the new season with several opponents exposing United’s defensive vulnerability.
As United’s captain, no doubt Maguire made clear his feelings to Solskjaer on whether this sudden switch to three-at-the-back is the right idea. After all, it didn’t exactly go well against City.
Harry Maguire wanted to make clear he hasn’t been listening to all the criticism of late after scoring for England in their World Cup qualifier against Albania
It’s a positive that United can switch between two systems and Maguire is well aware of what is required in such a set-up after his experience with England.
But we haven’t seen a lot of evidence it will help turn United’s miserable season around and make them more watertight at the back.
With Raphael Varane out injured for another few weeks, it falls to Maguire again to provide the on and off-field leadership to get United out of the mess they’re in and he needs to rise to that challenge.
There have been times when Maguire and Victor Lindelof have formed a strong pairing and they need to get back to that.
Captain Maguire should be able to marshal a back three if Solskjaer persists with it
The very effective understanding between Maguire and Shaw that benefitted England in the summer seems to have broken down for United this season.
The pair collided in the lead-up to one of Liverpool’s goals at Old Trafford and didn’t communicate with one another when Bernardo Silva squeezed in City’s second last time out.
Shaw was forced out of the game with concussion and it remains to be seen whether he plays at Watford on Saturday.
Luke Shaw was excellent during the Euros but hasn’t brought that form into the new season
Maybe Maguire should be moved to the left side of the back three so he has an easier outlet to set Shaw on his way but this may negate the captain’s ability to dribble the ball out of defence.
We have also seen less of Shaw’s crossing this season, which can be a real weapon, especially with the likes of Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani to aim for.
It’s likely to come down to having the confidence to push forward again as the left wing back role demands. After all, City, and to a lesser extent Atalanta, succeeded in pinning United back.
Shaw and Maguire collide as they struggle to stop Liverpool’s Naby Keita in last month’s game
It does seem absurd to be telling Cristiano Ronaldo to ‘step up’ when he is pretty much single-handedly dragging United through their Champions League group.
But Solskjaer could do with some of that European night magic from the Portuguese star transferring over to the crunch Premier League games.
Ronaldo has been excellent against Newcastle and Tottenham since his return but cut a very sullen and isolated figure in the defeats to Leicester, Liverpool and City.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s dramatic late goals are dragging United through in the Champions League
Part of the problem is that United just couldn’t get the ball to him but there’s also the accusation that Ronaldo doesn’t do enough pressing or tracking back himself.
It is to be hoped that Solskjaer got this message across during Thursday’s meeting but you have to be careful what you say to the man most likely to save your job.
Ronaldo could easily score a couple of goals at Watford but he then needs to be delivering against Villarreal, Chelsea and Arsenal as well. You wouldn’t bet against him, to be honest.
But the big games in the Premier League have seen Ronaldo look isolated with a lack of service
The youngster has scored just the one goal since August despite plenty of game time and Solskjaer will be desperate for him to rediscover his edge in front of goal.
Greenwood has been far from alone in being starved of service in recent games but hopefully some training ground work has been done on getting the ball to him wide on the right.
The lightning counter-attacks that United are good at haven’t been in evidence for a while and they need to move the ball quicker to get Greenwood into shooting positions.
Do that and Greenwood’s lean run will be merely a temporary blip.
Mason Greenwood has scored just one goal since August and has also struggled of late
31-year-old Matic has been far from a regular starter this season but with Paul Pogba sidelined with injury until the New Year, he could see more action amid a hectic schedule.
As one of the club’s longest-serving players, it was no surprise that Solskjaer values his input.
Whether Matic still has the energy to win midfield battles in the bigger games is open to question but there are plenty of matches coming up where he can partner with Fred or Scott McTominay to get a grip on proceedings.
Nemanja Matic could see more action in the coming weeks with Paul Pogba out injured
Sancho’s slow start at United has been well documented but if there was ever a time when Solskjaer needed such a player to stand up and deliver, then it’s now.
After he sat out the Liverpool and Spurs games, Sancho was introduced at half-time against his old club City but it was a tall order to make something happen against opponents in complete control.
With no goals or assists in United colours so far, a barren spell that led to Sancho losing his place in the England squad, it would be the perfect time to break his duck.
The Watford game may offer the perfect chance to do just that but Greenwood remains the more likely starter.
With Solskjaer under pressure, now would be the ideal time for Jadon Sancho to hit some form
Donny van de Beek
Has Donny’s time to shine finally arrived? Thrown on with 10 minutes of the Manchester derby remaining after the Stretford End started singing his name, maybe the £40million Dutchman is finally about to get his chance.
With Pogba out and both Fred and McTominay far from convincing of late, plus suggestions United’s players aren’t too happy with Van de Beek’s treatment, Solskjaer may give him a sustained run in the team.
Chances are it will instead be another fleeting opportunity for Van de Beek to show what he can do before he is consigned to the bench again.
But if he can help win the midfield battles and support Fernandes with the creative side, he may yet salvage his Old Trafford career.
Donny van de Beek may well get an opportunity at last after he came off the bench against City