Manchester United have made worse starts to seasons than this and won titles. But Manchester United have also made a worse start to this season than the table suggests. Early as August is, every week has come to assume seismic proportions for them.
In the space of seven days, they lost both standing and the prospect of Mason Greenwood’s return in the resolution to a damaging episode. They lost to Tottenham and, after what Erik ten Hag termed a “horror start”, threatened to lose to Nottingham Forest. They lost Mason Mount and Luke Shaw; taking Raphael Varane off on Saturday was a precautionary measure, but the Frenchman may yet join them on the injury list.
The next seven days, besides the end of a transfer window in which United have come to look in need of further reinforcements, brings things to shape a season: Carabao Cup and Champions League draws that can determine their destiny, a trip to Arsenal that feels still more of a marker after defeat at Spurs and considering their struggles away from home against the best last season.
“We know inside the dressing room that we’re capable of doing great things,” said Bruno Fernandes after his match-winning turn against Forest. Inside the dressing room, maybe, but the concern is what United do on the pitch and, if the Champions League can confer greatness, the evidence so far in the Premier League is unconvincing. A tally of six points is decent but also flattering from a fixture list that gave them two of the most winnable home games, while United were terrible for the last 55 minutes at Spurs.
A second season under Ten Hag ought to have begun more smoothly but issues abound. United have been too open. They have conceded 49 shots, an average of 16.33 per game, and an expected goals tally of 5.22, an average of 1.74 per match, and each tally would have been higher had Andre Onana conceded an injury-time penalty against Wolves.
Onana’s otherwise encouraging introduction to life in England was marred again on Saturday when, for Forest’s second-minute opener, the supposed sweeper-keeper first retreated and then contrived to sit down before Taiwo Awoniyi scored. Ahead of him, Lisandro Martinez has produced a hat-trick of ignominious showings; substituted to stop him being sent off against Wolves, scoring an own goal at Tottenham, culpable for Willy Boly’s header for Forest.
The Argentinian spent pre-season risking red cards and, when Victor Lindelof warmed up at the interval at the weekend, the temptation was to wonder if Martinez was being removed for wretchedness. Meanwhile, without Shaw, United may be lacking an established specialist left-back until November. The makeshift Diogo Dalot may face a duel with Bukayo Saka on Sunday. An out-of-form Martinez might not afford him enough help.
But frailties have been advertised. Forest’s Awoniyi had the pace to run behind United’s defence, Wolves’ Matheus Cunha the power to charge through the heart of their team.
Ten Hag has disputed some of the criticism of his midfield. Yet Mount’s start has been doubly bad: first failing to gel with Fernandes and leaving Casemiro exposed and then getting injured. Worryingly for the newcomer, both the Portuguese and the Brazilian delivered their best displays of the season in his absence on Saturday.
Marcus Rashford had his finest so far on the left, playing a part in three goals. However, and despite Ten Hag’s defence of him, he had been ineffectual in two outings as a striker. Antony struck the post at Tottenham and was bright against Forest but a winger faulted for his lack of productivity is yet to actually contribute to a goal this season. Alejandro Garnacho was underwhelming in his two outings, as was Anthony Martial when selected on Saturday, while Jadon Sancho has not been trusted to begin games. The idea that Greenwood might return to add potency has been shown to be an illusion. United had three goals from midfielders at the weekend but still have none from attackers this season. They have contrived to make Rasmus Hojlund more important before the Dane has even debuted.
The 20-year-old may make his first appearance at Arsenal. Yet the fact he arrived injured has made him a sadly appropriate replacement for Martial so far; injuries have disrupted Ten Hag’s plans. Perhaps the first four minutes against Forest were a microcosm for the season as United began in a state of disarray.
Which was more understandable last year. But now Ten Hag has had his pre-season – though United lost three games in it – and has something closer to his squad, with eight signings, with spending around £400m, with five of his recruits beginning each game.
The broader picture is that United are a work in progress, yet their opponents have looked the more coherent teams: Wolves five days into Gary O’Neil’s reign, Tottenham in their second match under Ange Postecoglou, Forest with a terrible away record. None of which automatically bodes badly: Sir Alex Ferguson’s first Premier League crown came after his side took a solitary point from their first three league games of the campaign.
Yet even as a United comeback took their unbeaten run at Old Trafford to 31 matches, it has been a stuttering start to the season, one that scarcely suggests a first title challenge since Ferguson’s day is coming. They have made hard work of what could have been a soft landing at home.