Reports of scrambling around China on a cold January night searching for a striker capable of scoring the Premier League goals required to take Manchester United – a £2.5 billion brand – back into the Champions League doesn’t particularly fill you with confidence about strategy.
Years of wasted millions, bloated contracts, face-scrunching transfer deals have led to the systematic dismantling of Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy at United, the fearsome aura they cultivated for the best part of three decades is all-but a memory.
It has been another slog in 2019/20 with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clinging to the wheel he was initially heralded for steering in style.
The term one step forward, two steps back has rarely been used with such accuracy as when describing United’s campaign with critics, fans and angry Twitter users with either seven random numbers or the -inho suffix attached to their their name and anonymous display picture – lining up to fire their shots at will.
You wouldn’t think that United are on a roll.
Once a narrative begins to snowball, there’s very little anyone can do to melt the ice, but dare I poke my head above the parapet to suggest United actually deserve credit for their efforts this season?
They sit fifth. Two decades ago, this would have been a laughably poor showing, Roy Keane may never have been seen in public again under the weight of shame.
But in context, with Liverpool and Manchester City in two leagues of their own and with Leicester enjoying the freedom to actually have a good season a league not governed by a divine right to success, United have made a solid first step on the road to a better future, have they not?
This season’s signings Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are part of a backline that has kept five clean sheets in their last six outings, while Anthony Martial is creeping into form.
United have operated without the mercurial Paul Pogba for much of the season, a massive blow despite his flaws, while main man Marcus Rashford will have missed a third of the season by May.
The meter is topped up by youngsters like hot-shot Mason Greenwood – top teenage goalscorer in the Premier League this season – and Brandon Williams has effectively created a new position to accommodate himself and Luke Shaw, thus is the potential he boasts.
With Scott McTominay soon to return, United’s XI is taking shape, not just for the remainder of this season but for the future, and yet in his absence, Solskjaer has coaxed a tune from Fred, the once derided figure who appeared ripe for the scrap heap.
United do still boast a certain level of deadwood, several players who are yet to reach their absolute ‘use by’ date but are lingering a day or two beyond their ‘best before’ and need shifting, but the solid bones of a team are in place.
The shards of talent poking out of United’s squad are visible and in an admittedly poorer standard of division than previous editions of the Premier League, they still find themselves firmly in the hunt for a Champions League berth.
United have kept in touch with Chelsea for long enough that any slight change in the equation could be enough to rock the balance in their favour.
Enter Bruno Fernandes.
The £52million midfield man has visibly enhanced United since his introduction, with two assists and a strike to his name in his last two Premier League outings.
Fernandes has brought a sizzle to United’s midfield, an extra dimension.
Many have criticised Solskjaer’s approach for his reliance on rudimentary counter attacks centred on the pace and explosiveness of Rashford, Martial and Duracell Bunny Daniel James, but without lock-pickers in your ranks, how else can you play?
Fernandes has brought a new dynamic to United’s play with a showreel of high, lofted dinks and low, slotted passes giving United’s hungry forwards the beginnings of a feast to pick over.
And his presence alone has been enough to spark a resurgence. Does that not add weight to the idea that United really aren’t as far off the elusive next level as we’re led to think by every one-time social media egg.
It’s hard to absolve Solskjaer of blame for many, many aspects of United’s play this season, and it’s certainly tough to vindicate Ed Woodward’s lack of nous in the transfer market, but now they’re in the hunt, in a good run of form and going along nicely in the Europa League – are we ready to give credit where it’s due?
Or does that not fit the narrative?