Harry Maguire won a towering header in defence, Nemanja Matic pinged a sumptuous volley out to Mason Greenwood on the left. The youngster surged forward and crossed beautifully for Bruno Fernandes to finish clinically at the back post.
From their own penalty box to the opposition’s net in three passes and 12 seconds, this was precisely the kind of exhilarating football Manchester United are famous for.
The dominant performance United produced in their 3-0 win at Brighton on June 30 could be held up as template of what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is trying to achieve at Old Trafford.
Bruno Fernandes celebrates with Paul Pogba after rounding off a classic Manchester United counter-attack during their 3-0 win over Brighton at the Amex Stadium on June 30
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was all smiles after seeing his United side dominate from start to finish
There was brimming optimism around the club at that time. United were unbeaten in 15 matches across all competitions, a record bettered only by Bayern Munich across Europe.
Fernandes was running the show; Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial couldn’t stop scoring; Paul Pogba was back from injury and having an impact and the defence had stopped leaking goals.
But the mood of optimism around Solskjaer’s United back in June seems to have drained away following a difficult summer
There was the promise of winning the FA Cup or the Europa League – or even both – and the summer transfer window would surely see Jadon Sancho arrive from Borussia Dortmund to take United to the next level.
But as United prepare to head to the Amex Stadium again on Saturday, less than three months on, all of that optimism has drained from the club.
United are at a very low ebb and what could be a torturous season has only just begun.
Solskjaer’s side had just about enough in the tank to ultimately finish third in the Premier League and qualify for the Champions League.
But they didn’t win any silverware, crashing out of the FA Cup and Europa League semi-finals to Chelsea and Sevilla respectively.
A trophy would have signified that United were heading in the right direction under Solskjaer but the third-placed finish – some 33 points adrift of champions Liverpool and 15 behind Manchester City – represented the bare minimum of expectations.
As we know, Sancho hasn’t arrived and United haven’t been lifted to a level that may allow them to improve on last season.
Harry Maguire cuts a dejected figure as United opened their season with defeat to Palace
Marcus Rashford couldn’t make an impact as Roy Hodgson’s side won 3-1 at Old Trafford
Borussia Dortmund, under no pressure to sell and with no agitation from the player, have remained steadfast to their £108million valuation of Sancho and United have refused to pay it.
Now, reports suggest United will table a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer of £90m in a desperate-looking final effort to get Sancho. Actually, it will be £75m up front and a further £15m in add-ons.
Ed Woodward will reportedly inform the Bundesliga side there will be no negotiating over the fee or the structure of the deal.
If so, he risks having Dortmund shut the door in his face. The German club know Sancho’s value isn’t going to drop and there could well be a bidding war among European powerhouses next summer when the Covid-battered market has recovered.
A signing of Sancho’s ilk would be handy because in contrast to those heady days in June and July, United lack a cutting edge.
United have been unable to bring in their No 1 summer transfer target Jadon Sancho
Ed Woodward has come under pressure with just one signing made so far this summer
Donny van de Beek is the only new arrival at United so far after joining from Ajax for £35m
In that game with Brighton, United had six shots on target and scored three times, with the first-half strikes from Greenwood and Fernandes killing the contest inside half-an-hour.
Against Palace, despite 76 per cent possession, 17 shots in total and four on target, they could only muster one goal – which came from the one signing they have managed to make this summer, Donny van de Beek.
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Saturday Brighton (A)
Wednesday Brighton (A)
Carabao Cup fourth round
October 4 Tottenham (H)
October 17 Newcastle (A)
October 24 Chelsea (H)
October 31 Arsenal (H)
Fixtures subject to change
And their shambolic defensive performance against the pace of Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend has only raised more questions.
Now Solskjaer has hinted that Eric Bailly may replace Victor Lindelof as Maguire’s central defensive partner.
The lack of depth in Solskjaer’s squad was highlighted alarmingly at times last season.
His first choice XI were reliable, sometimes excellent in the second half of the campaign, but his back-up brigade represented a significant drop in quality.
Woodward, who watched the Palace capitulation from the stands at Old Trafford, must know reinforcements are urgently needed.
But time is fast running out before the October 5 transfer deadline and with the pandemic costing United upwards of £100m in lost revenue, the funds aren’t necessarily there.
The fact Woodward is trying to haggle down a £17m asking price for Porto left-back Alex Telles doesn’t bode well for a flood of expensive arrivals in the next fortnight.
That will only increase frustration among fans – whose social media moans apparently in turn irked the club – and the mood of despondency only deepened following the Palace defeat.
Some things have been beyond Solskjaer’s control, of course.
He didn’t expect his captain Maguire to end up in a Greek prison cell following a brawl outside a Mykonos nightclub.
Harry Maguire was found guilty of assault and given a suspended prison sentence after his involvement in a brawl in Mykonos. He has appealed with a re-trial set for a later date
Mason Greenwood made his England debut in Iceland but was then sent home in disgrace for breaching Covid-19 protocols by inviting girls into the team hotel
Maguire is appealing his conviction and suspended prison sentence after he was found guilty of assault with the re-trial set to be another distraction for the player in a few months’ time.
Then there was Mason Greenwood being sent home in disgrace from England duty after he and Phil Foden invited two girls into a hotel room in Reykjavik, a breach of Covid-19 protocols.
Solskjaer said United were unhappy with Greenwood being called up in the first place and unimpressed that he was put on media duties.
It’s cast a shadow over the teenager’s opening to the season after a brilliant breakthrough campaign of 17 goals.
Then there’s the knock-on effects of three-month shutdown amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
United’s players react to the disappointment of their Europa League semi-final loss to Sevilla
Victor Lindelof struggled in defence as United were beaten by Crystal Palace last weekend
United’s Europa League run pushed their season well into August and afforded the players just a couple of weeks’ rest before things started again.
Given United only had time to play one pre-season friendly, it’s perhaps little wonder they looked under-cooked against Palace.
But things aren’t exactly going to get any easier. The schedule is unrelenting for all United’s players all the way through until next summer, when the rearranged Euro 2020 awaits the weary bodies and minds of a good number of their squad.
Solskjaer faces a juggling act in the months ahead to keep United on track in four competitions and inevitably any setback will turn the debate back to a lack of summer signings.
It may be less than three months since United’s last trip to the Amex Stadium but it feels as though so much has changed – and not for the better.
Only the kind of swashbuckling performance that marked their visit to the south coast in late June can reignite some kind of feel-good factor at Old Trafford.