Manchester United face Everton on Sunday with the chance to win three consecutive Premier League games for the first time this season, with victory at Old Trafford offering the opportunity to suggest Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is beginning to develop as a coach.
Before the recent impressive wins over Tottenham and Manchester City, there was a battling draw against Liverpool, two wins over Chelsea and a 1-0 success against high-flying Leicester City.
In each instance, they proved to be false dawns.
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The disappointments still outweigh the positive surprises from this campaign at United, even with the club just five points off the Champions League places with a game in hand on Chelsea.
Leads and comebacks have been squandered too often. The arrivals of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have not shored United up at the back as Solskjaer would have wished when spending £140 million ($186.5m) on the pair over the summer despite a handful of impressive performances from the pair.
The recent recovery has lifted the atmosphere at United and among fans, however. They have shown their strongest qualities. They have conceded, but they ultimately held their nerves against some of the best attacking players in the Premier League.
They were profligate in both those matches too, but they were nevertheless ruthless enough to finally take enough chances to put the games out of reach. Too often under Solskjaer, United have had their foot on the throat of their opponents, only to let them wriggle free. That has to change, starting with the visit of the Toffees to the Theatre of Dreams.
This United side is perhaps the first to have entirely expunged the memory of Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams. Under both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal they still had regular late comebacks. Teams still rolled over in the face of players who had carried themselves with an air of arrogance when led by Ferguson.
Of course, consistency had left them by this point, but United’s opponents often felt they were playing the 20-time English champions, rather than an unrecognisable team that just happened to share the same name.
Jose Mourinho, in thrall to himself and his opportunity, played up to the history of the club by acknowledging the sheer grandeur. It was only as he started lighting fires in his last summer did it seem clubs were happy to seize on the disarray consistently.
Solskjaer took over from there, and the pronounced collapse post-Paris Saint-Germain excised any sense of invulnerability. The poor start to the season showed that unless things changed radically, this was a team that deserved its mid-table status.
The Norwegian has, of course, often played up to the traditions of the club. In the absence of any achievements actually qualifying him for the job, invoking his past association with Ferguson and the treble-winning side of 1999 to ensure his credibility is rarely questioned. But on the pitch, there are no inspiring links with the past.
Chris Smalling has been dispatched to Italy while Phil Jones is used in emergencies only. David de Gea is the only Premier League title-winner with United remaining in the starting 11, but even he has lost some of his air of invincibility over the past 18 months.
The 10 players in front of him have almost nothing to do with Ferguson, and they finally have the chance to define what this team is. Solskjaer has been plain that this is a rebuilding job and that a return to youth is fundamental to instilling a new mentality. He is not trying to recreate the past, but he is taking his lessons from it.
Previous evidence suggests, though, that that chance will not necessarily be taken. So far there is inconsistency and an irresponsibly thin squad. These are are insurmountable obstacles in terms of being able to pull off something truly spectacular. Indeed, overcoming weaknesses and setbacks is what can be the making of a durable team spirit, something that could finally be forged.
A win over Everton would go some way to achieving that. Against Duncan Ferguson’s revitalised team, United should be on the front foot. They played with gusto against City, their lack of possession entirely mitigated by the sheer mountain of confidence and swagger they brought with them. They came to make a new name for themselves and they achieved it.
“The intent was there to go forward, every time we had the ball it’s not about keeping it or slowing it down, we go for the kill and should have been three or 4-0 up,” were Solskjaer’s words post-match. Against Everton they will need to show that they can be the favourites and at the same time avoid complacency, going for the kill just as their manager has requested.
If they are able to do just that, a new dawn may finally be on the horizon.
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