A relatively kind fixture list was supposed to allow Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the chance to ease into this season.
But it hasn’t quite turned out that way and now any sympathy from the schedule has well and truly vanished.
Before the end of November, Solskjaer’s stuttering side have to play Leicester, Atalanta (twice), Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, Villarreal, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Daunting at the best of times, but more so in the absence of your two first-choice central defenders.
Raphael Varane went off during France’s Nations League win over Spain with a thigh problem and is set to be sidelined ‘for a few weeks’, according to Manchester United
United skipper and first-choice centre-back Maguire was already sidelined with an ankle injury, which leaves Ole Gunnar Solskjaer without his two best centre-backs at a crucial stage
That’s the headache potentially facing Solskjaer, however, after Raphael Varane limped out of France’s win over Spain in the final of the UEFA Nations League on Sunday night.
The £43million summer arrival from Real Madrid will be out ‘for a few weeks’ with a groin problem, United confirmed on Tuesday.
Harry Maguire, meanwhile, is suffering from an ankle injury and missed United’s two games against Villarreal and Everton prior to the internationals having hobbled off against Aston Villa.
Maguire, who also missed out on England duty this week, is understood to have taken part in some light training on Monday but looks like being touch and go for the visit to his old club Leicester on Saturday afternoon.
Not only do these problems deprive Maguire and Varane of opportunities to build their understanding of one another’s games, but it leaves Solskjaer with a quandary over who should replace them.
The most likely partnership against Leicester will be Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly but this doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.
Varane and Maguire had started to understand each other’s games as United’s No 1 pairing
Victor Lindelof (left) and Eric Bailly might have to fill in as United’s central defensive pairing
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Saturday Leicester City (A)
October 20 Atalanta (H)
October 24 Liverpool (H)
October 30 Tottenham (A)
November 2 Atalanta (A)
November 6 Manchester City (H)
Due to Maguire’s good fitness record, it hasn’t been a pairing we’ve seen too often under Solskjaer – but on the last three occasions that we have, United have suffered defeat.
One came last month when United were dumped out of the Carabao Cup by West Ham. Before that, the Europa League final against Villarreal ended in penalty shoot-out heartbreak. A few days prior to that, there was a 4-2 loss at home to Liverpool.
That West Ham game constitutes Bailly’s one and only appearance so far this season, a result of him being bumped to fourth on the central defensive pecking order by Varane’s arrival.
Lindelof started the season alongside Maguire but knew he would soon be phased out to make way for Varane. As it’s turned out, Maguire’s injury meant he started alongside Varane in the win over Villarreal and the draw with Everton.
So the omens of Bailly and Lindelof playing together aren’t great. In fact, the prospect will send a shudder through quite a few United fans.
Lindelof has often been criticised for lacking presence in the air – a weakness disguised by Maguire’s aerial strength – and for backing off too much when attackers run at him.
Bailly can have the opposite issue, lunging in a bit too readily and recklessly at anyone who comes at him with a bit of pace.
So Jamie Vardy will be licking his lips at the prospect of facing them both this Saturday, not to mention the other high-class attackers coming United’s way in the next few weeks.
Phil Jones has been back in training for a while after his knee injury but hasn’t played yet
Jones last played a first-team match for United against Tranmere back in January last year
Perhaps Solskjaer could throw a curveball and bring Phil Jones back into the fold to partner either Bailly or Lindelof.
But this is obviously fraught with risk. The erstwhile England defender has played only two reserve games to get back up to speed since a 20-month lay-off with an horrendous knee injury.
Though Jones has been back in full training for a while, Solskjaer maybe envisaged his first-team return being a cup tie against League One opposition or something rather than a trip to the King Power Stadium.
He partnered Lindelof quite a few times during Solskjaer’s first season as United boss but that’s getting on for three years ago.
Beyond that, Solskjaer allowed Axel Tuanzebe, who showed some promise in the position, to go out on loan to Aston Villa, while youngster Teden Mengi has played only one first-team game.
Leicester’s Jamie Vardy will be enthused by the prospect of playing against Bailly and Lindelof
United’s manager never expected to lose both Maguire and Varane at the same time, of course, and the timing of their absence couldn’t be worse.
Solskjaer finds himself under serious scrutiny following a start to the season that wasn’t disastrous but hasn’t been fully convincing either.
United are fourth in the Premier League table and only two points behind leaders Chelsea, but they have dropped five points in their last two outings, at home to Villa and Everton.
It required a 95th-minute winner from Cristiano Ronaldo against Villarreal to avoid it being just one point from the first six available in the Champions League.
United’s form has stuttered in recent weeks, piling the pressure onto manager Solskjaer
And with the Norwegian boss under no illusions he must deliver a piece of silverware this season or likely face the chop, crashing out of the Carabao Cup to West Ham was far from ideal.
Now the real examination of this United team is about to begin and with a gaping hole at the back.
Solskjaer will have to hope either the injuries to Maguire and Varane are less serious than first feared or their stand-ins can step up to their level.