When Manchester United visited Brighton three months ago the evening ended with Graham Potter declaring the opposition as good a side as they’d faced that season.
The 3-0 win at the Amex also included a trademark United goal that rolled back the years and hinted at a bright future, a devastating counter-attack finished off by Bruno Fernandes.
It was the second in a run of four consecutive wins by a three-goal margin and at that stage United were the most exciting team to watch in the Premier League.
This week Potter said United had been “as good as anybody” after last season restarted and those performances helped take them to a third-place finish.
But the restart is over. This is the start of a long, arduous campaign and the memories of those swashbuckling displays on summer nights have gone. Instead, the mood is as dark as the impending nights as Premier League clubs settle in for a grim winter.
The next 10 days will have a significant impact on what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side can expect from this season. That includes a league and cup trip to Brighton, next weekend’s Premier League fixture with Tottenham and a transfer window that has so far bought disappointment, aside from the weekend when United snuck upon a deal for Donny van de Beek.
Solskjaer will be desperate for reinforcements to arrive before the October 5 deadline, to strengthen his first XI and give him greater options off the bench.
Results on the pitch will also be vital then in this period, especially the two Premier League games. The loss to Crystal Palace at Old Trafford last weekend might have been United’s first in the league since January but it’s insipid nature has raised concerns and Solskjaer’s side simply cannot be as flat against the Seagulls and Spurs. They came back to claim third in the second half of last season but it’s unlikely to be a trick they can repeat twice.
Life would be much easier if they could keep pace with the top four from the start of this season but to do that they need to get the defeat to a Wilfried Zaha-inspired Palace out of their systems.
It’s systems that will be playing on Solskjaer’s mind as United prepare to head to the south coast twice in a matter of days. Potter was right to say that United were the best team around after lockdown, but their side and their style hasn’t changed much since then. Teams have become wise to the threat of Bruno Fernandes and the pace of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
The quality of those players will still make a difference, of course, but teams will work out ways to defend against them, by trying to mark Fernandes out of the game and defending deeper and narrower against the front three.
United have to find ways to unsettle defences, to give them something else to think about if the methods that worked so well in June and July aren’t working in September and October.
Having another creative midfielder in Van de Beek can help with that and another top level forward will be a bonus as well. Solskjaer dropped Fernandes a little deeper after Van de Beek came on last week. He can also use players such as Daniel James off the bench to try and make the game wider.
There are various ways to try and give opposing defences something different to think about, to try and engineer more space for United’s key men. Solskjaer has to find a way that works if Plan A doesn’t.