Ten games. That is all it has taken to transform Manchester United. And seven years, of course, but the hope is that all that’s in the past now.
It did not feel that way when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side lost 2-0 to Burnley at Old Trafford in January.
Rio Ferdinand called that performance indefensible. Darren Fletcher described the atmosphere as toxic as supporters turned their ire towards the executive vice-chairman Edward Woodward.
“It is not good enough,” acknowledged Solskjaer.
“The boys, they looked mentally tired towards the end. We didn’t find that creativity.”
Thirty-four points from 24 games was worse than the previous season – the one Solskjaer had been asked to save.
Worse too than that season under David Moyes.
More pertinently, the defeat that evening left United level with Tottenham, six points behind Chelsea and 14 points behind Leicester.
That gap to Leicester now stands at just one point after Thursday’s emphatic 3-0 win over Aston Villa.
The sort of assured display served up at Villa Park looked a long way off the last time that United faced off against an outfit in claret and blue.
Back then, this looked likely to be a season that supporters would have to endure not enjoy.
“This next six months is going to be really, really difficult,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports in the aftermath. “I can’t believe that the investment that has been put into the squad over the last five, six or seven years, and you end up with that out on the pitch. I cannot believe it.”
It was not just the last five or six years that were troubling Neville, but the next five or six players that he was convinced United would need to help turn around their fortunes.
Paul Scholes had the number at four or five. He has since downgraded it to two or three.
As it turned out, one new signing and one academy graduate have succeeded in getting the Manchester United juggernaut moving in the right direction once again.
Fernandes the catalyst
This was not Bruno Fernandes’ most complete display, but there is magic in those boots.
As early as the third minute, there was a flick to Mason Greenwood inside the penalty box. The match-turning moment came later when his pirouette bought a penalty for his side.
It was not a great decision by referee Jon Moss and Villa were unfortunate. But it was no coincidence that the little bit of invention – the drag-back and turn – came from Fernandes.
As for Greenwood, showing him on his right foot is clearly no more sensible than allowing him to fire off a shot with his left. He blasted home the second before the break.
That is 16 goals in all competitions for him. Quite the haul given that he has been on the pitch for less than a third of Manchester United’s Premier League season.
The final goal came courtesy of Paul Pogba when he curled the ball past Pepe Reina from the edge of the area.
The provider for that one? That man, Fernandes.
That assist was his sixth in the Premier League since the start of February, more than any other player in that time.
It is a statistic that would be impressive enough on its own.
But the scale of his impact since joining Manchester United is illustrated by the fact that he has also scored seven Premier League goals too – nobody has more in that time.
The result is that United are the Premier League top scorers since his debut. Fernandes has changed the complexion of their season and the perception of those around him too.
Anthony Martial is one of only two other players to match Fernandes’ seven-goal tally. The Frenchman is scoring regularly now that he is receiving some proper service up top.
Nemanja Matic and the rest have improved too because there is clarity now. Providing protection is the only responsibility when the sparks are flying ahead of him.
Pogba has spoken of the joy that he is feeling just being a part of this team.
“We have been playing great football, scoring goals and winning and everybody has been doing their job,” he told Sky Sports. “We have been defending well, the strikers have been defending as well and that is the beautiful thing that I see from behind.”
There was an example of that against Villa when Martial’s harrying forced a corner in the 51st minute. There is renewed energy about Manchester United’s attack now.
The advanced metrics highlight this underlying change.
With Fernandes, United are forcing almost twice as many high turnovers ending in a shot. The number of build-up attacks – pass sequences that end in a shot – have also increased.
Fernandes’ shot volume coupled with Greenwood’s increase in game time is proving a game changer.
“The biggest change in this United team is that it is now capable of playing more than just counter-attack,” Neville explained at Villa Park. “You got the feeling that when they could not play counter-attack they were thwarted going forward but they are much better at building now through midfield and creating opportunities against packed defences.”
Solskjaer’s project is back on track and the progress is tangible.
There are still problems, of course.
Some will stress about the ease with which Harry Maguire’s was nutmegged by Junior Stanislas against Bournemouth – and the skipper remains their best centre-back.
Behind him, David de Gea’s errors have been more frequent than is ideal.
Neville sums up those concerns.
“Is that back five good enough for where he wants to go? I think the answer is no.”
Man Utd vs So’ton
July 13, 2020, 7:30pm
But when the issue demanding attention is whether to replace the four-time player of the year with one of the most promising young goalkeepers in the Premier League in Dean Henderson, there should be an appreciation that these are problems more befitting of Manchester United.
Elite problems once more.
Because the core concern has been addressed – United are enjoyable to watch again. They score goals and they threaten in possession and on the counter-attack.
Manchester United’s renaissance appears under way.