Manchester United were in danger of utterly crumbling in the wake of that 6-1 home defeat to Tottenham at the start of October. That is at least how it seemed.
The players, having come off the back of a promising but delayed, long and tiring 2019/20 season, looked broken barely a few weeks into the new campaign.
The lack of pro-active recruitment appeared to affect the morale of a thin squad that expected additional help to come in, while the lack of a proper pre-season left individuals short of fitness.
Paul Pogba in particular was forced to miss vital preparation work when he tested positive for coronavirus in late August and there appeared to be no easy solution to the Harry Maguire problem, a shadow of the player who had enjoyed at least a decent debut season at Old Trafford.
United were outplayed by Crystal Palace in their Premier League opener and got lucky against Brighton a week later. The spirit that had characterised the team in ‘Project Restart’ was long gone and the humiliation against Spurs was almost unsurprising in a sense.
It could have been the catalyst for an utterly disastrous season – think Chelsea in 2015/16 flirting with relegation early on and ultimately ‘rescuing’ a 10th place finish – especially given the tough fixture list that has immediately followed that game.
It is to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s credit that has not been the case and things have quite quickly and suddenly turned around in the three and a half weeks since.
The Norwegian is often bashed for being a ‘PE teacher’ and a ‘fraud’ (who isn't nowadays, though?), and someone who only got the job because of a goal he scored as a player over 20 years ago. But while he may still not ultimately be the right man to restore the glory days, that is a wholly unfair assessment.
If Solskjaer had nothing about him, United wouldn’t have rallied to beat Newcastle 4-1 in their first game after the Spurs defeat. The contest may have been decided by three very late goals, but the visiting United from Manchester dominated that evening at St James’ Park.
If Solskjaer had nothing about him, he wouldn’t have changed the system when United faced Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, with the back three offering greater defensive protection against one of the most potent attacking units in Europe. United won 2-1.
A 0-0 draw against Chelsea may have seemed a disappointment in the Premier League game that followed, but consider that United had been ripped apart by Spurs and that Chelsea had averaged 2.6 goals per game prior to kick-off and were the Premier League joint third leading scorers.
Against Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig, Solskjaer saw fit to change the team. He brought Pogba back and gave Donny van de Beek only his third start. He also put Mason Greenwood back into the XI and took the calculated risk of rotating out Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford.
It worked perfectly. United pummelled a team 5-0 that had only conceded three times in seven games across all competitions. Greenwood scored the opening goal and Rashford emerged from the bench to settle the game, combining with Fernandes for the second goal.
Rashford went on to score a hat-trick, United’s first in the Champions League since 2014 and also the club’s first from a substitute since Solskjaer himself netted four against Nottingham Forest in 1999.
The risk of rotating paid off for Solskjaer because both Rashford and Fernandes played less than half an hour each and will be fresh and full of confidence for the trip to Arsenal on Sunday. The minutes for Van de Beek, who is being allowed to settle in, were also important.
Solskjaer doesn’t have to be considered a managerial genius and he will only retain support if results and performances head in the right direction. But he absolutely deserves credit where it is due.