Opinion: Reason for cautious optimism ahead of defining period for Man United

A six-game unbeaten streak including 13 goals scored and only one conceded, five clean sheets and a first Manchester United goal for Bruno Fernandes. Momentum is starting to build around Old Trafford but should the fans let themselves get carried away just yet?

United sit in fifth position after the weekends 3-0 victory over Watford, the type of game which has so often caught the Red Devils out this season. They’re still in the FA Cup with a winnable tie away to Wayne Rooney’s Derby County coming up and they hold the advantage in the Europa League after securing a 1-1 draw in Bruge last Thursday.

A trophy or two and a spot in next seasons Champions League would qualify as a hugely successful season for Solskjaer’s side and the optimism that Fernandes’ first handful of performances has given the supporters hasn’t been felt for quite some time. The three-point gap to fourth placed Chelsea looks ever smaller as their faltering form continues and with the prospect of Manchester City’s European ban being upheld it might not even matter.

However, United fans have been lured into this false sense of security before in this unpredictable campaign. The victory on Sunday meant Solskjaer’s men have managed consecutive wins for only the third time this season and United have failed to secure victory in three consecutive league games in 2019/20. Failure to claim the three points at Goodison Park at the weekend will extend that barren run to a year.

Victory at Chelsea in the EFL Cup back in October was followed by a loss at Bournemouth, a six game unbeaten run through December was abruptly halted by a defeat at the hands of a Watford side marooned at the foot of the table, and a frustrating January resulted in victories over Wolves, Manchester City, Norwich and progression in the FA Cup being sandwiched between losses to Arsenal, City, Liverpool and Burnley. United have been consistently inconsistent.

This was to be somewhat expected though, with the club going through a transitional phase. Since Ole’s arrival several first-team players have exited with a handful of new arrivals and a number of academy graduates replacing them. Even the most ardent #OleOut supporter couldn’t argue that the Norwegian has improved the personnel in the squad but the lack of experience in the side, injuries, the lack of strength in depth and, arguably at times, the managers tactics have all hindered United’s progression.

The winter break appears to have done United the world of good, however. Marcus Rashford may be out for the season with his back injury, but the two-week break in Marbella has allowed time for likes of Scott McTominay and Eric Bailly to make their returns as well as giving new life to Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Dan James. It feels as though Maguire has played every minute of every game this season and his efforts were beginning to take a toll on his performances. The Spanish sun has reinvigorated him, and the England centre-half appears back to his best.

READ MORE: Bruno Fernandes has brought x-factor to Manchester United, says Solskjaer

Shaw has been fantastic for a couple of months now, whether on the left side of a back three or in his traditional left-back berth. The 24-year-old appears faster, stronger and calmer than ever before. Perhaps the competition from 19-year-old Brandon Williams is just what he needed. The one positive to come from Rashford’s long-term absence is that Dan James is able to play on his favoured left flank. Suddenly he is a goal threat again after having the option to cut inside and fire a shot on target with his favoured right foot. There is still much room for improvement from the young Welsh winger, but the shoots of progress are showing.

Anthony Martial still splits opinion on whether he really is a ‘number 9’ or a wideman and whether he displays the right attitude and work ethic, but the moment of magic he produced against Watford left no doubt in every fans’ mind about his ability. Three goals in three games now for the Frenchman shows that while he is not a player who can always make things happen on his own, given the right service, he can be a striker which Manchester United can rely on.

And of course, Fernandes is the man supplying that service. He’s the creative midfielder that the supporters have been crying out for and that the team has desperately missed. He’s settled in seamlessly and looks head and shoulders above every other United player in that department. Rashford, Martial and ultimately Solskjaer have been constantly let down by the lack of quality shown by Jesse Lingard and Andreas Periera this season whilst Juan Mata’s legs have evidently gone. It was telling that as soon as McTominay was back available and with Fernandes at his disposal, the United boss found no place for Lingard and Periera in his matchday squad.

Despite the positives mounting up for United, the crucial crescendo is fast approaching. The next four league games could define their season. Everton away, City at home, the first trip to Spurs new stadium and Sheffield United’s visit to Old Trafford complete a testing set of fixtures. So often United have followed an impressive result or string of performances with an equally notable collapse. Hope can be drawn from the fact United have often fared better against the top sides this season and Scott McTominay’s return has come at just the right time.

Nevertheless, supporters have learnt not to get carried away with this current crop of young United players but the next month could prove pivotal in this team’s evolution.

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