Things were almost going too well for Manchester United following football’s re-start, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sat back on the touchline and watched win upon win roll in.
Confidence was high and the Red Devils were without defeat, yet Sunday’s humbling evening against Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final has brought the side crashing straight back down to earth.
United were soundly outplayed and, on the cusp of what is to be a defining week, the team must now show their true mettle to recompose and achieve their season-long aim of a Champions League finish.
Sportsmail takes a look at the things which need to occur before the all important final two fixtures of the season:
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows United may be rocked by the Chelsea loss ahead of a crucial week
Drop David De Gea
It’s no longer an elephant in the room talking point, but a real and immediate concern.
In the very recent past hardly any opposing arguments would be raised if one said De Gea was the most accomplished stopper on the planet. Now, he looks a shell of himself.
The Spaniard has faltered numerous times in recent weeks, but the pair of howlers he showcased at Wembley could be potential confidence-shatterers.
After letting the ball tamely slide beneath him for Olivier Giroud’s opener, De Gea returned for the second half as a man stricken with worry, only to let Mason Mount’s long range effort squirm into the bottom corner and all but kill off the tie.
David De Gea was left looking to the skies after two blunders led directly to goals at Wembley
De Gea now looks like a man desperately in needs of a summer holiday, to get his mind and body back in kilter. That doesn’t mean this is a straightforward call for Solskjaer. He either needs to get the Spaniard back on song and ensure the defensive line have complete trust, or drop him altogether.
Further errors in the two remaining fixtures, against West Ham and then a crucial final day showdown with Leicester, would quite literally break United’s campaign.
Sergio Romero has on many occasions proved himself to be an able deputy for De Gea, and now he must step up to the plate.
Recall the rotated players
This is perhaps where Solskjaer came most undone inside the national stadium, and was left scratching his head in frustration.
Given United’s hectic yet successful run of fixtures prior to the Wembley showdown, shuffling the squad made sense ahead of a trip to London.
Yet the Norwegian perhaps bought into an element of false confidence here. Sure, United’s form has been highly impressive – however that was purely down to the cohesion of the same XI taking to the pitch week in, week out.
Solkskjaer retained Marcus Rashford (left) at Wembley but shuffled the remainder of his pack and saw his side suffer painfully as a result
Solskjaer experimented, removing Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood from the starting line-up and paid the ultimate price.
United simply do not have the accomplished depth to switch players in and out and continue their mercurial form since the re-start.
Rashford struggled without his key hitmen around him, while United failed to put any fluidity into their game. Substitutes were brought on and the team returned to its familiar state, but the damage was done.
Solskjaer needs to get his tried and trusted formation back on the pitch before momentum is halted.
Forget the back three
Each time United revert to three central defenders it rarely works, instead appearing to stunt the side a little.
We saw this again at Wembley, with the imposing figures of Harry Maguire, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof at the back.
On paper it made sense, nullifying the big target-man Olivier Giroud and giving advanced wing-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams the license to bomb forward and create havoc.
United’s back-three system let them down again and Solskjaer needs to stick with what works
Except, it just didn’t work. Communication lacked, and it was Giroud who slipped through the big central defenders to tap home at the near post.
United looked uncomfortable, and to cap it all off Maguire put the ball past his own goalkeeper in the latter stages.
A solid back three works for many teams, but it is not United’s forte. In Wan-Bissaka Solskjaer has the rare breed of a youngster who truly understands the art of defending, while Maguire looks much more steadfast when alongside one key central partner.
It’s time to return to the back four.
End the reliance on Bruno Fernandes
This is a tricky one, given the Portuguese maestro has set English football alight since his January move.
Fernandes has added a whole new dynamic to the United side, and it’s fair to say their impressive Champions League charge would not have been possible without him.
As always happens, of course, the other teams begin to work out the system. Game upon game now Fernandes is being targeted, as oppositions looked to stem the source of United’s power.
The magic of Fernandes’ inclusion however has been his linking between the lines – connecting the base of United’s midfield with the electric front three of Martial, Rashford and Greenwood.
Bruno Fernandes is United’s spark and driving force, but is becoming overly relied upon
With a disturbance to the line up on Sunday, Fernandes found himself with different personnel in front of him.
It was nowhere near as effective, and instead United reverted to a panic mode of trying to get their midfield talisman on the ball wherever possible. This, of course, played right into Chelsea’s hands.
This can’t become a habit for the Red Devils, especially with two vital games left to play.
United are widely expected to beat West Ham in their upcoming fixture, though a final day showdown with Leicester – who are also desperate to earn a Champions League slot – could see everything come down to the wire.
Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers is known as a master tactician and, should United find themselves in a difficult situation whereby Fernandes is their only escape route, this could spell serious trouble.
Bring back the early goals
In late June and early July, United dispatched Brighton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa in ruthless fashion.
In each game they struck either just before or just after the 20-minute mark. It was a quality sign of preparation from Solskjaer, that United were taking a short window to settle into matches before inflicting the first lethal blow.
In each of these three games United scored 11 goals collectively, in a ruthless patch of football.
In the last two games however, this energy has lacked. Even prior to the miserable Chelsea defeat, United needed a full half of football to find the back of the net against Crystal Palace.
They would go on to labour through a second half, in which they almost conceded on several occasions, before confirming victory late on.
At this late stage in an already prolonged season legs are getting heavy and fatigue is setting in. Yet early goals are key for United, and crucial if they are to embark on a Champions League adventure in the coming campaign.