SHEFFIELD, England — The nervousness in the build-up to the trip to Sheffield United is evidence enough that not all Manchester United fans are convinced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team. But there will be renewed optimism about what could be possible this season after a 3-2 comeback win at Bramall Lane.
After Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City, Leicester and Southampton all dropped points in the space of 48 hours this week, United seemed destined to do what they always do and find a way to self-destruct — even against the Premier League’s bottom side and the only team in English football’s top four tiers yet to win a league game this season.
Instead, however, they came from behind (again) to win away (again). They are now just the fourth team in top-flight history to win 10 league games in a row away from home, winning all six league fixtures away from Old Trafford this season despite conceding first each time. In fact, United are the first Premier League side to win six away games after conceding first in a single season.
They did so here after just five minutes when Oliver Burke charged down Dean Henderson — in for David De Gea — and David McGoldrick tapped into an empty net. But then the comeback kings clicked into gear to score twice in eight minutes before half-time through Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
Rashford scored again in the second half before McGoldrick’s fortunate second late on made for a frantic finish. In the end, it was not enough to prevent Sheffield United from setting a new club record of eight consecutive defeats or from breaking the ignominious record for the worst-ever start to an English top-flight season dating back to 1888-89.
“The start was so sloppy, slow again and I was surprised about that,” said Solskjaer. “We spoke about it, showed videos and it happened. We jogged around the pitch but the character is fantastic by every single one of us.
“I don’t have any frustrations at the moment. It was a difficult game, a difficult place and I didn’t expect it to be comfortable.
“The goals we scored were excellent and once in a while you have to accept opponents have got weapons and armoury that can harm you and Sheffield United certainly have.”
United are up to sixth, five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand. Win that and they would be second. Solskjaer’s pre-match declaration that he wants his players to believe they can challenge for the title this season does not seem so far-fetched any longer.
There are issues to address before the bookmakers consider them to be anything more than fifth-favourites behind Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, and Chelsea, and Solskjaer will know they cannot keep giving teams a head start. A better side than Sheffield United, the only team in the league without a clean sheet this season, would have done a better job of defending what they had instead of capitulating before it was time to batten down the hatches.
United have gone behind in 11 of their 18 games in the Premier League and Champions League and it’s not sustainable to keep expecting them to pull a rabbit out of the hat time after time. Solskjaer learned that lesson against RB Leipzig, as United were demoted to the Europa League.
There is, though, evidence to back up the tentative optimism. United have taken 16 points from the last 18 available and top the form table ahead of the gruelling Christmas schedule.
Here, Solskjaer was able to partner Rashford, Martial, and Mason Greenwood — the front three so scintillating at the end of last season — for only the third time this term and the third goal in particular — a rapid move from one penalty area to the other in a matter of seconds — showcased exactly why they can be so devastating.
After a week of headlines generated by his agent Mino Raiola, Paul Pogba showed off all of his best attributes, notably a range of passing that no one else on the pitch could match. The shop window can do wonders for a players’ form.
“He won more or less every single header, his vision, his creativity; Paul has responded really well to the work he’s been doing and it was an excellent performance,” said Solskjaer afterward.
Martial, meanwhile, got his first league goal of the season after a difficult start thanks to suspension and injury. If United are going to put together a serious challenge, the Frenchman will likely have to get close to the 23 he got in all competitions last season.
With the game under control in the second half, Solskjaer was also able to give Bruno Fernandes a rare breather and bring on Donny van de Beek. The Norwegian had enough options to give De Gea, Luke Shaw, Fred, and Scott McTominay the night off and his squad rotation will continue to be vital as he tries to navigate five games in 13 days beginning with Leeds United‘s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday.
There will be more nerves before that game. Solskjaer’s United are fast becoming the rollercoaster Reds but for now, they remain on track.