When Manchester United lost a game last season their record at getting back on track straight away was not good. It’s why defeats could quickly turn into mini-crises for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Not including the Europa League semi-final defeat to Sevilla, when United didn’t have a game to respond, they lost 11 times last season but won on the next occasion only four times.
Too often they would lose a game and fail to clear their heads in time for the next fixture.
It means bad runs became too common, at least until their form improved after January, although even the solitary defeat from February – to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final – was followed up by an Old Trafford draw with West Ham that briefly threatened to derail their top-four hopes.
Some of United’s worst setbacks last season weren’t followed up with a convincing response, which was an issue for Solskjaer. Defeat to Crystal Palace at home was followed by a draw at Southampton. A draw at Sheffield United and a defeat in Astana was then followed up by a draw to Aston Villa. Defeat at Anfield was met by defeat to Burnley at Old Trafford. You get the picture.
Solskjaer will say United are made of sterner stuff now and so far their record this season has been reasonable, aside from the week where they followed a home defeat to Arsenal with that disastrous display in Istanbul.
But now United need to prove their manager right. The defeat to Sheffield United on Wednesday was probably the most shocking result of United’s season, because it was so unexpected. United were flying, the Blades are already sunk, but somehow Solskjaer’s side surrendered the chance to go back to the top of the Premier League table.
Now they have to respond with a result. To those critics who said United’s title challenge wouldn’t come close to staying the course, this was the beginning of the end. United face three Premier League games in the next 10 days that could define whether they are challengers for the long-term, or if the top four has to be their target this season.
Solskjaer will certainly expect a response at Arsenal on Saturday. United fell well below the standards they’ve set for themselves against the Blades and they have to put that right.
The next three games – at the Emirates and then Old Trafford clashes with Southampton and Everton – are true tests of the mettle of a title challenger. Games you should win, but which can easily hurt you. A return of seven points might not be too bad at all.
That would certainly be an improvement on last season, when United took two points from these fixtures. A New Year’s Day defeat at Arsenal and Old Trafford draws with Everton and Southampton.
Two points from those games now would most definitely signal the end of United’s title challenge. This is the moment when Solskjaer will hope the change in mentality he’s talked about this season will be evident on the pitch, making sure the potential for a poor run is nipped in the bud.
Solskjaer said last week that his signings since January – Bruno Fernandes, Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles and Edinson Cavani – have helped strengthen the mentality in the dressing room, turning draws into wins. Now they need to turn what became sticky patches last season into one-off defeats.