SINGAPORE - Even after just four English Premier League (EPL) games, it would take a brave man to bet on Manchester United adding to their 20 top-flight titles at the end of the season.
After failing to win their last three matches, the Red Devils have just five points and are mired in eighth position, seven behind leaders Liverpool.
Former United defender Ronny Johnsen told The Straits Times that United have to sort out their defence, leadership and contract issues to challenge for a place in the top four and qualify for the Champions League again.
Arguably, United have conceded soft goals in the 1-1 away draws against Wolves and Southampton, and in the 2-1 home defeat by Crystal Palace last month.
Johnsen, who won three league titles and the 1999 Champions League with United, felt that while new signings Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are good defenders, the back line need to understand each other better.
Ahead of Saturday's (Sept 14) home clash against Leicester City, the 50-year-old said: "It was the same when we had new defenders during my time. Players like myself, Henning Berg and Jaap Stam needed time to settle down, to know each other's strengths and weaknesses and how to complement each other's movement.
"Wan-Bissaka has been really good defensively. He is difficult to get past in one-v-one situations, he is quick, and he is a good tackler. I want to see more of him offensively, but that will come in time.
"At 1.94m, Maguire has good height which is an asset in both boxes. He is a top centre half and the defence will get better when he and (Victor) Lindelof get to understand each other better.
"I'm convinced it will all work out, but it cannot take long. Leicester have done well so far to be unbeaten and in third position. With the likes of Jamie Vardy and James Maddison, they are really quick and capable of scoring goals. It will be difficult for United, but they know these players and they will have a plan to stop them.
"United need to step up. They have been sitting back and relying more on the counter attack. They have to decide if they want to be more adventurous.
"I know every game is important, but after dropping seven points in their last three games, the Leicester match is especially important because they need good results to back things up and restore confidence after a rocky start."
Much has also been made about the uncertainty in the squad that revolves mostly around wantaway midfield star Paul Pogba and goalkeeper David de Gea, who is approaching the last nine months of his United contract.
Johnsen hopes their futures can be sorted by January, but feels they should not be held against their will.
He added: "De Gea is a very good goalkeeper United want for the long term, and Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer) has said he wants to build the team around Pogba, who has shown the talent he has. So, I hope they sort out their futures and sign for United as soon as possible, and the situation should be clearer by January.
"But if the players don't want to be there, it will be difficult for United to keep them and they have got to be released."
He also conceded that besides the duo, there is a lack of leadership figure in the young and talented bunch.
"Players like Daniel James have been a revelation going forward but sometimes, you like to see players demand more of each other," said Johnsen who, with former Liverpool midfielder Vladimir Smicer, will be at Chang Beer and Singtel Media's live screening of the Liverpool-Newcastle and United-Leicester matches at Club Street from 6.30pm on Saturday.
"When the going is tough, you want leaders to show the way forward. From the outside, it can seem United lack leadership. I think Maguire can be that figure."
However, he backed his fellow Norwegian to restore United's glory days, with the wheels of a revamp already moving with the offloading of Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Chris Smalling.
Johnsen, who will be back in Singapore for the Battle of the Reds veterans' event at the National Stadium on Nov 16, said: "As a United player, there is a lot of pressure to do well, and it is the same for the United manager. But Ole is experienced at handling it. He knows the club inside out, and their philosophy.
"It is not easy to change things instantly. I hope he will get the time he needs to get the club moving in the right direction, and he is on his way to turning things around.
"With the talent he has in his squad, it is all about getting a string of results to boost confidence and move on from there. They showed signs of that in the 4-0 win over Chelsea.
"City and Liverpool have raised the bar and are looking super strong again this season. It seems like only third and fourth places are up for grabs behind them, and United must be in the running to regain a place in the Champions League, on top of challenging for cups."