Before his recent purple patch in front of goal, Romelu Lukaku’s future at Old Trafford beyond this season was shrouded in uncertainty.
Question marks remain over whether undoubtedly talented Marcus Rashford can truly morph into a deadly centre-forward.
Despite this being his fourth season in England, critics and fans alike still wonder: Will Anthony Martial ever fully break out and transfer potential into prowess?
And as for Paul Pogba, despite being a World Cup winner, will he ever be the leading man his club need him to become in order to re-establish themselves on football’s grandest stages?
And yet, despite all four players enduring their difficulties and the constant transfer talk swirling around about the need to bolster their striking department in the summer, this Manchester United quartet have already broken a 23-year-old club record this season.
If there’s one statistic which stands out from the early Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era, it is that this is the first season four different players have scored 10+ league goals since the 1995/96 campaign.
That was 23 years ago and for it to occur now is utterly remarkable considering the chaos 2018/19 was embroiled in just three months ago.
United were being crushed under the weight of Jose Mourinho’s spineless tactics, archaic instincts and poisonous leadership. And his haphazard and often brutal man-management style was stymieing United’s most enterprising young talents.
Rashford’s future at his boyhood club was being plunged into uncertainty as Mourinho seemed intent on only deploying him out wide, ignoring his obvious promise as a central striker, with Lukaku his undisputed No1 frontman.
Despite this blind faith shown in him, a wretched run of 12 games without a goal set in for the 25-year-old who, under his champion Mourinho, had been struggling to replicate the 27-goal haul of his debut season in red.
Martial – still striving to live up to the hefty sum involved in delivering him from Monaco to Manchester in September 2015 – was said to be close to mutiny under Mourinho as talk of a summer exit hastened. He subsequently signed a new six-year deal in January.
Enough has already been said about the tempestuous relationship between Mourinho and Pogba – the £89m man who became Scott McTominay’s understudy with the Portuguese in charge.
And yet, following their goals in a pivotal 2-1 win over Watford on Saturday, Rashford and Martial moved into double figures for league goals this season. There, they join Lukaku, on 12, and Pogba, on 11. The last time the Red Devils possessed four players who did this, they ended the season by lifting the third of their 13 Premier League titles.
Tony Coton, Graeme Tomlinson, Pat McGibbon, Kevin Pilkington, Terry Cooke, Ben Thornley, John O’Kane and William Prunier (they’re real people) were members of that United squad nearly half a century ago and an unheralded 23-year-old Norwegian with the surname Solskjaer would join the club that summer.
Eric Cantona was top scorer with 14 league goals and 19 in total as the Red Devils did the double – adding a ninth FA Cup to the collection. Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole both netted 11 league goals and an emerging Paul Scholes – who enjoyed a breakout year the previous season – added 10.
Even in the historic 1998/99 season – where United were fired to unprecedented treble glory by the stunning four-pronged strikeforce of Cole, Solskjaer, Dwight Yorke and Teddy Sheringham, only three of them hit double figures – Yorke 29, Cole 24 and Solskjaer 18.
Sheringham scored one of the most important goals of the campaign and, indeed, United’s history with the equaliser against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final at the Camp Nou. But it was one of just five strikes the entire season and he had only two in 17 league appearances.
The most Premier League goals plundered by United in a season is 97, the year after the treble, in 1999/2000. Even then, only Yorke (20), Cole (19) and Solskjaer (12) reached double digits – Roy Keane did score 12 overall, though.
United’s striking department has often been criticised as underwhelming, especially this season. But as with most of Mourinho’s moans, Solskjaer is proving them to be mainly myth.
The awesome foursome have found the net a combined 43 times in the league and on 54 occasions in all competitions. That is just three short of Cantona, Giggs, Cole and Scholes’ goals from 95/96 in the league (46) and four shy of their overall haul (58).
There are still seven league games remaining for United and at least nine left in total (two legs of the Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona) for the players to surpass this feat.
Solskjaer was a predatory poacher of goals during his 11-year Red Devils tenure as a player – 126 in total during 366 appearances – so United’s attackers were always likely to benefit from the arrival of a former player who earned the nickname the ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ for his deadly finishing ability.
But Solskjaer’s positive energy, underrated tactical acumen, trademark beaming smile, an underlying steely-eyed, no-nonsense attitude – and of course bringing in Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant Mike Phelan, someone who knows the club even better than him – have all been key components to him steering a ship which seemed destined only to sink in December, back on a course to possible greatness.
Martial is the only player whose goals ratio was better under Mourinho, both Rashford and Pogba have scored more under Solskjaer – Pogba significantly so (eight under Solskjaer, three for Mourinho). Lukaku has six for both managers.
This, despite the fact the Belgian missed two weeks of Solskjaer’s reign with a foot injury. It must be stated, meanwhile, that Martial – who scored seven under Mourinho and three under Solskjaer – has been robbed of six weeks due to injuries and illness since late December.
With Solskjaer now in indefinite rather than interim charge, United will spend big in the summer in order to cut the gap to Manchester City and Liverpool. But now, having achieved such an historic feat and thriving under Solskjaer, a striker doesn’t seem such a necessity for the Norwegian.
Pogba described Madrid as a “dream” club while on international duty and made specific reference to Los Blancos boss Zinedine Zidane, who said over the weekend he liked the midfielder “a lot”.
Solskjaer was asked about Pogba at his Monday press conference and said: “I don’t like to talk about other teams’ players but this is another challenge with international breaks. Players are available all the time.
“It’s a different environment, it’s more of a general talk and Paul is a very nice and polite man who answered a general question.
“Zidane is an icon in France, Zidane is a fantastic manager, he used to be a fantastic player – I played against him myself – and Paul has just politely answered that question.
“Paul’s happy here and he’s going to be a big, big part. I’ve always said that you’d like to build your team around him and that hasn’t changed at all.”
Solskjaer last week became United’s permanent manager on a three-year contract following a successful spell as interim boss in recent months.
His position is expected to be supplemented by the creation of the role of sporting director or technical director, with Solskjaer acknowledging that he cannot carry the burden – as managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson did in the past.
Solskjaer added: “Football has changed and the structure at football clubs have changed. That’s just the way football goes.
“A manager can’t do as much as he used to do when my gaffer started, for example.
“Me and Ed (Woodward, executive vice-chairman) and Joel (Glazer, co-chairman), we are looking at how can this club be run as smoothly and as well as possible.
“We’ll see what the club will end up with and I’m happy talking and discussing football with knowledgeable people in the right positions.”
Both Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku are expected to be available to face Wolves on Tuesday.
Martial scored in the 2-1 win over Watford over the weekend but later limped out of the fixture while fellow forward Lukaku was an unused substitute.
Solskjaer added: “Both will be ready for tomorrow, definitely. It looks good.”
Having superbly steered the ship on a caretaker basis after Jose Mourinho’s December sacking, the 1999 treble hero was rewarded on Thursday with a three-year deal.
There was a celebratory atmosphere ahead of Watford’s visit to Old Trafford on Saturday, when Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial goals sealed a narrow 2-1 win on an uncomfortable afternoon.
Solskjaer knows it was a “sloppy” display and Jones accepts it was far from their best, but the long-serving defender is excited for the future and loving life under the Norwegian.
“The lads are buzzing,” the England international said. “He’s come in, he’s been a breath of fresh air for us.
“He’s put the arms around the shoulders of people who needed it. His man-management skills are terrific and he’s definitely what we need going forward.
“I think everyone can see that (he has laid foundations). I think the fans, the media, I think everyone can see what he’s done and how he wants to play since he has come, and I think we’ve shown that in quite a few games. It’s positive, we’re looking forward.”
Ferguson was at Old Trafford to see his former striker win his first match since becoming permanent manager.
The feel-good factor and return to United’s traditions have led to comparisons the Scottish great – talk that Jones, part of Ferguson’s league-winning side in 2013, understands.
“Yeah, I definitely feel the same sort of vibe about the place,” the defender said.
“The same buzz. The same… I don’t know, like you can’t really put your finger on it, but I know exactly what you’re saying.
“You can see similarities in that stage between now and back then. It’s nice, it’s refreshing and we’re all enjoying it.”
That enjoyment is bringing results. Having been 11 points off the top four when Mourinho was sacked, Solskjaer has won a remarkable 35 points since December – more than any other Premier League team has managed in that period.
Asked what that tally says how close United are from challenging moving forwards, Jones said: “I don’t think we’re far away. I think obviously we had a poor start to the season.
“It’s sort of like a story of two halves of the season, really.
“He’s come in and done a terrific job. I’m delighted he’s here now and we can move forward and progress under him.
“I think that’s the vision for the players, for the staff, for the fans, everyone involved in this football club (to win trophies).
“It’s a wonderful place to play football and that’s where we want to get back to.”
Even Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster can see that United are on the up under a man he saw up close during his time at Old Trafford.
“I am delighted for Ole,” said the former Red Devils stopper. “He was actually my reserve manager at United once I’d been bombed out of the first team.
“He was great, though, Ole. I’ll always have a really good word to say about him, as will probably anyone who has ever met the guy.
“He’s a top bloke and I am sure the lads will enjoy playing for him as well.
“I just saw him on the pitch coming off. It’s the first chance I’ve had to say, ‘well done’ to him and that I am really happy for him.
“But he just brings a togetherness and I think management nowadays has evolved, where players almost know what they’re doing.
“They just need somebody who can really instill confidence and stick an arm around players and tell them that they’re doing a good job.
“I think that’s what they’ve been lacking in the last couple of years.”
Asked if he had noticed a change in the atmosphere at his former club, Foster said: “Yeah, it just seems a better place, a happier environment and that’s what Ole brings.
“When I was playing for him when I was in the reserves here, he was just brilliant.
“Everybody loves playing for him, you go out on the pitch with a smile on your face and a spring in your step.”