Cristiano Ronaldo’s sensational return to Manchester United allowed fans to dream big but three defeats in four games have ramped up the pressure ahead of Villarreal’s Champions League trip to Old Trafford on Wednesday.
There is no need for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to hit the panic button yet, with his side just one point behind Premier League leaders Liverpool after six matches.
But there are worrying signs for the Red Devils, who must rediscover their mojo quickly after a shock reverse in their Champions League opener against Young Boys, a League Cup exit to West Ham and Saturday’s defeat against Aston Villa.
The one result that breaks up that nasty sequence was a 2-1 victory at West Ham, but that only came courtesy of a late winner and a David de Gea penalty save in stoppage time.
In other circumstances, the game against Unai Emery’s Villarreal might appear routine but United are already on the back foot in Europe after their embarrassing loss in Switzerland.
United boast a squad that on paper can compete with anybody, with a rich array of attacking talent including Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba.
And that’s not even including big summer signings Jadon Sancho, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard or the injured Marcus Rashford.
United must stop the rot on Wednesday and in the context of Europe it could be make or break.
“It’s a big game, a Champions League night and we know we’ve started that group badly,” said Solskjaer. “We’ll be ready.”
Despite some eye-catching wins this season, United have often lacked cohesion and relied on moments of individual magic from players such as Fernandes, Pogba and Ronaldo.
There is the lingering sense that United are lacking the midfield balance to make a concerted challenge.
After a string of near-misses in the hunt for silverware, Ronaldo’s return added to over £100 million of investment in Sancho and Raphael Varane means Solskjaer has to deliver this season.