Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side responded to Saturday’s unconvincing win over West Bromwich Albion – and the 2-1 defeat in the reverse fixture against Basaksehir three weeks ago – with a commanding performance to put them on the brink of the Champions League knockout stages.
This was United’s third straight win, but such is their inconsistency under Solskjaer that it can be hard to tell if they are turning a corner or simply going round in circles. Another setback will not feel far away until they embark on a long, sustained run of good form.
At the same time, the only headaches their manager had on Tuesday night were welcome ones. The first relates to Bruno Fernandes, whose two goals included a marvellous seventh-minute half-volley from the edge of the penalty area. Just last month, Fernandes was struggling for the first time in his Old Trafford career. The high-risk, high-reward strategy that he bases his game around was not paying off and the rest of the team was suffering as a result.
He was poor in Istanbul – every United player was – but since then, he has five goals in three games and only one of those has come from the penalty spot. With 21 goals in 25 appearances since his arrival from Sporting, no player has surpassed the 20-mark quicker in United’s history.
What’s the problem, then? Well, Fernandes is integral to everything that United do at the moment, to the point that it is difficult to leave him out of the side.
Solskjaer admitted before Basaksehir’s visit that he would have to do just that at some stage, given just how compressed the pandemic-hit schedule is, but Fernandes has started all but three of United’s 14 games and is needed to turn around the spluttering domestic form.
If United collect the point they need against Paris Saint-Germain next week, that could leave Fernandes surplus to requirements for the final Group H outing away to RB Leipzig. But even then, there’s every chance his team-mates will be jostling for the coveted group winners’ position in that game and will need him with them.
Solskjaer had a simple solution when asked about the Fernandes problem after the final whistle and delivered it bluntly. “You take him off,” he said. “Bruno’s very important for us and if the game’s won at half-time or after 60 then it’s easy to rest him.”
But for that, United will have to start winning games quickly. Winning games full stop has proved enough of a challenge at times.
If a window does open for Fernandes to drop out, Donny van de Beek would be the natural beneficiary. Then again, he impressed in a very different role on Tuesday night.
Van de Beek kept things ticking over nicely as part of a double pivot at the base of midfield against Basaksehir, winning many compliments from his manager post-match despite it being only his fifth start and second time in the role for United.
Solskjaer has preferred two of Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic in those positions recently and, while that set-up has provided an effective defensive shield, it leaves a team already lacking creativity almost totally reliant on Fernandes.
Van de Beek is not quite the creator that Fernandes is, but with both in the side United at least have two players adept at progressing the ball through midfield to a forward line that is full of firepower but light on invention.
The issue with Van de Beek in a deeper role long-term? For one, you diminish his best quality – late forward runs into good goalscoring positions – but there’s also the wider question of what happens if his performances there quickly become difficult to ignore. Fernandes is already undroppable, so where that would then leave the presently-injured Paul Pogba?
Van de Beek’s arrival meant how Solskjaer balanced his three star midfielders was always going to be one of the more intriguing subplots of United’s season. Now that the new signing has shown himself capable of playing that more reserved role – as he did for much of his last year at Ajax – these next few weeks could offer some clues as to Solskjaer’s long-term thinking.
That and the question of how and when to rest Fernandes are two caveats to Tuesday night’s impressive win and both mark headaches for the United manager but, as the cliche goes, they’re relatively nice ones to have.