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Failure to strengthen squad leaves Solskjaer struggling to catch up with top-four rivals

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Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has not signed the right players in time for the new season as the October 5 deadline looms

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has not signed the right players in time for the new season as the October 5 deadline looms

Pool via REUTERS

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has not signed the right players in time for the new season as the October 5 deadline looms

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When last season eventually stuttered to a halt, Manchester United found themselves in third place in the league.

Top three. Rubbing shoulders with Manchester City and champions Liverpool. Back in Europe.

Same as it ever was.

Except it's not. Last Saturday's 3-1 opening match defeat to their eighth season without Alex Ferguson, ranks as Man United's worst league opener in a quarter of a century.

Despite the heroic rescue intervention masterminded last season by playmaker Bruno Fernandes, who arrived in Old Trafford at the end of January, Man United's position seems about as solid as garden furniture in a tornado.

While teams around them dug deep and either reinforced their foundations or added strength to their frame, Manchester United dithered.

The famous club made do with a makeover, unveiling a dizzying 2020/21 season third kit, a black 'n' white zig-zag stripe that owed more to the legacy of Op-art creator Bridget Riley than that of Matt Busby and Duncan Edwards.

In United's first league match of the season, new signing Donny van de Beek scored a goal on his debut that gave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side a chance of getting back into the match at 2-1.

He wasn't the only one disappointed when the team's rickety defence offered Crystal Palace a third goal to seal the deal.

The salt in the wound was that two of the Palace goals were scored by Wilfried Zaha, a player United sold to them five years ago.

Man United supporters everywhere sighed deeply at the realisation that a team that finished 11 places and 23 points behind them in the league, a team they'd beaten 2-0 away in July, had not just taken three points but had looked sharper and more committed than the side Solskjaer hopes will challenge for silverware this season.

Not only was United's first game of the season a dispiriting affair, it was the club's third defeat on the trot.

A 1-0 defeat by Aston Villa in a friendly earlier in the month, had followed a 2-1 Europa League semi-final defeat by Sevilla in August.

Both Sevilla and Aston Villa revealed flaws at the heart of the United design, a blueprint that was found wanting in the last four of the Carabao Cup against Manchester City (3-2 agg) and the FA Cup by Chelsea (3-1).

The Sevilla match was notable for the outburst Bruno Fernandes directed at centre-back Victor Lindelof.

Afforded an extra week off before the start of their league campaign, it was expected that United would add a key player or two before swinging into competitive action.

While Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs have all made astute or marquee-name signings, Holland's Donny van de Beek is Manchester United's sole attempt at rejuvenating a listless, and often clueless, squad.

Solskjaer is aware of the predicament.

"We need games, we need sharpness and time to get back to our best," he complained after the Palace defeat. "We are going to get better but we are playing catch-up."

Playing catch-up is far from ideal in a season when fixtures will be coming thick and fast.

Tomorrow, United travel to play a Brighton side that has scored six EFL Cup goals in the last nine days. And another 3 in a 3-0 drubbing of Newcastle in James's Park last Sunday.

Brighton boss Graham Potter has a confident squad to choose his starting XI from.

He says his players have been showing "character, personality and quality."

He knows that United will be back in Brighton mid-week for an EFL Cup fourth round clash.

"It's exciting," he says. "Whether we play Saturday-Tuesday or Saturday-Wednesday we'll look forward to the first game and then see what happens."

What happens could have a dramatic effect on Manchester United's future.

A second morale-damaging league loss would see the club scrabbling at the bottom end of the table. Not a good look for a club attempting to woo top talent to Old Trafford.

Even if United's attacking players rediscover their goalscoring skills, the squad will still be haunted by the spectre of their creaking defence.

It's early days, of course, and the transfer window doesn't shut until October 5, so there's still time to avert a crisis.

One or two astute morale-boosting signings could transform the squad.

But right now, the pressure is on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.