Manchester United are already looking for shafts of light in the dark, four games into the new Premier League season – thankfully Daniel James is shining brightly in the gloom.
While it is far too early to make any definitive judgement on the latest Old Trafford transition, another mediocre display in the 1-1 draw at Southampton pushed the optimism of the opening-day romp against Chelsea even further into the background.
The 4-0 win is United’s only victory in those first four games, since when they have cast aide winning positions at Wolves and Southampton, and lost at home to Crystal Palace.
Hardly fixtures from the high end of the Premier League and five points is a very average return for what looks like a very average Manchester United team.
Solskjaer’s shocking end to last season was airbrushed away in the summer amid talk of feelgood factors, increased fitness, new brooms sweeping clean and some expensive arrivals.
And then, after Chelsea, reality has kicked back in.
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This Manchester United side does not even bear consideration and comparison set against Manchester City and Liverpool. They occupy a different world.
This is already a season where Manchester United will have to aim for a place in the Premier League’s top four and you would not risk a lot of money on them being good enough to achieve it.
United have won three of their last 16 games. They have not won away from Old Trafford since that unlikely victory at Paris St Germain in the Champions League in March. They are winless in eight away matches, drawing three and losing five, which is their worst run since going nine without a win between April and November 2014.
The tally of five points in their opening four Premier League games is their worst since they started they 1992/93 season with four points.
They may be elite in name at home and abroad, but it will be a long way before the actions of this team can match those words.
United had a measure of control at the interval at St Mary’s but conceded it far too easily to Southampton, allowing the giant figure of Jannik Vestergaard to draw Saints level after James’ brilliant opener following a period of pressure.
Paul Pogba had one of those dreadful days that frustrate so many Manchester United fans while Marcus Rashford was so poor it was only the desperate need for a winner that kept him on the pitch when changes were made.
Victor Lindelof had an uncomfortable 90 minutes and was beaten in the air far too easily for Vestergaard’s leveller.
It was not a performance that would make any United fans yearn for the return of expensive failures Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, shunted off to Inter Milan permanently and on loan respectively, but there was no question they lacked a killer touch – especially given the number of crosses that flew unattended across goal.
What the departures, along with Chris Smalling’s loan move to AS Roma on loan, do is highlight that United’s squad is thin and does not look robust enough when faced with the twin threats of injury and loss of form.
Solskjaer faces a huge job to get United even within touching distance of Manchester City and Liverpool, while threats will come from elsewhere as they try to make the top four.
At this stage, little convincing evidence has been produced that they are any nearer than last season and the manager still has much to prove.
Their next group of fixtures are certainly not any easier than those they have had so far, as they play Leicester City at Old Trafford, West Ham United away then Arsenal back at home.
Solskjaer and United are left looking for crumbs from results like this – and this is why attention will grow on the likes of 21-year-olds James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka to post the signposts to that brighter future.
James still has the erratic touch of youth but what raw materials are here for Manchester United to work with. The danger now is that too much is expected too soon.
He scored a goal here that was a thing of beauty. The threat was instant when he received Scott McTominay’s pass in the 10th minute, taking advantage of an invitation inside on to his right foot before firing a magnificent rising drive past Angus Gunn into the top corner.
James had two other attempts punched clear by Gunn and sent several dangerous crosses into the box that failed to draw a final touch.
And when placed in the context of Sanchez’s departure, the strength of his early impact is clear.
James has now equalled Sanchez’s Manchester United Premier League goal tally after just four games. He has three goals while it took the Chilean 45 appearances to do the same. He has also scored with each of his first three shots on target in the league.
He was also United’s biggest threat with four shots on target – no other player had more than one.
This Welsh youngster, looking a bargain at £15m from Swansea City, is already carrying a heavy burden of responsibility but looks comfortable with its weight.
It is, however, a sign of failings and flaws elsewhere that a young man plucked from the Championship for a relatively low fee is suddenly carrying so many of Manchester United’s hopes.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka looks a sound buy for the future but as always, United’s – and Solskjaer’s need – is now.
James has been the biggest plus for Manchester United in these opening weeks, having already been taken to the hearts of supporters who have re-written the song about his great fellow countryman and predecessor Ryan Giggs tearing defences apart to suit the new boy.
And on this average evidence, this may be a season where United and their supporters will snatch gratefully at every positive sign they can.