Only a few months back, the Old Trafford crowd were seeing life through rose-coloured glasses, and who would have blamed them?
The Red Devils started their Premier League campaign in an emphatic style thrashing bitter rivals Leeds United by 5-0.
Then, Cristiano Ronaldo marked his return to the club with a brace in Man United’s 4-1 win over Newcastle.
But, all those seem like far distant memories now.
Manchester United have slipped to sixth in the Premier League table, and are a point behind who lost all three of their opening matches.
They got humiliated away at Leicester and at home by Liverpool.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, under whom United made two back-to-back runners up finishes in the last two seasons, all of a sudden finds his job at risk.
Lack of quality in the midfield
The record time English champions spent north of £100 million this summer transfer window bringing in the likes of Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Raphael Varane.
But, surprisingly, they did not address the most pressing issue of the squad – a proper defensive midfielder.
Fred and Scott McTominay have anchored the Man United midfield mostly throughout last season.
But, time and time again, the duo portrayed why the Mancunians needed to go for midfield reinforcements in the summer.
Both Fred and McTominay are good footballers, but continuously they ended up in shadow areas during build-ups which hampered United’s ball progression and during the opposition counter, they sometimes got caught in situations that allowed the opposition to run into acres of space.
The cohesive pressing of the frontline provided enough cover for Fred and McTominay’s deficiencies.
However. Since Manchester United were such a dynamic system in 2020/21, their midfield did not derail their season, and they finished second behind Manchester City.
However, the 12-point gap suggests they were never in strong contention for the league title.
Ronaldo is a riddle Ole needs to solve
Bringing back Cristiano Ronaldo has made things a bit more complicated for Ole.
While the 36-year old is still one of the finest finishers in the business, he caters to a different setup.
Cristiano Ronaldo has thrived in teams that granted him a license to go forward.
He is a guaranteed source of goals as he is great in picking up spaces and positioning himself in the right places to score.
To get the best out of the Portuguese, a team needs to have an elite link-up player like Karim Benzema or Wayne Rooney.
On top of that, the defensive shape has to be ideal to compensate for the gap Ronaldo leaves behind.
Manchester United so far have been struggling to integrate Ronaldo the right way.
The four-time Ballon d’Or winner has been prolific himself, scoring nine goals in eleven outings for the club.
But, his presence created problems in other areas of the pitch, which can be addressed with proper coaching and tactics.
One of the obvious solutions for Ole is to drop Ronaldo altogether and bring back Mason Greenwood as the central striker.
This, however, would put him under even greater scrutiny.
Benching a player of Ronaldo’s calibre is a tough call for any manager in the world. So, we don’t think Ole will go down this path unless it is the last resort.
Bruno Fernandes will have to shoulder the responsibility of the link-up player to provide Ronaldo will ample goal-scoring opportunities and protect the midfield at the same time.
The wingers will have to play a more proactive role as well to prevent the midfield from getting overexposed.
Jadon Sancho would have loved playing for Manchester United last season.
He has played for an attack-minded Borussia Dortmund side in the Bundesliga and his primary responsibilities there were to receive the ball while surging forward and cut in from the flanks.
With frequent runners all around him, Sancho would have been a great fit at Ole’s 20/21 United.
Ronaldo’s lack of mobility changes the situation.
Now, the wingers will have to play a bit inverted role to provide more defensive cover. Marcus Rashford gets the nod in this regard ahead of Sancho.
If Sancho wants to cement his place in the lineup alongside Ronaldo, he will have to take on more defensive duties.
Nemanja Matic should play as the defensive midfielder to offer more stability in the middle of the park.
The Premier League veteran is 33 years old now, which does not make him the best candidate for the role.
But, he is still the best Manchester United have at that department, which goes on to show how grim of a mistake the club made not signing a defensive midfielder.
How to use Fred
Fred has often been slated for his blunders, but in some cases, the criticism was harsh since he was a victim of the inefficient defensive structure of Man United during transition plays.
With a solid partner and in a decent shape, Fred can perform much better and make the Manchester United midfield more difficult to break down.
With fixtures like Watford and Norwich on the horizon, there is a great opportunity ahead for Manchester United to bounce back.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to tweak his tactics to make Manchester United flourish again.
Instead of trying to cram all of his star players together in the lineup, the Norwegian has to go for the right personnel to get desired results and more stability in playing style.