MANCHESTER - Manchester United already look like a new team following Jose Mourinho’s departure, writes Adam Bate. The symmetry, like Manchester United’s football, was irresistible. The 5-1 thrashing of Cardiff was the first time that United have scored five goals in a Premier League game since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match in charge. What an extraordinary start for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Mike Phelan must be wondering what all the fuss has been about.

Make no mistake, these Manchester United players were under the microscope in south Wales. Everyone went into this looking for hints and clues. Would they play with freedom following Jose Mourinho’s departure? As it turned out, there was no need for detective skills. The swagger of their display in Solskjaer’s first game in charge was unmissable.

There was some fortune early on. Marcus Rashford’s third-minute free-kick allowed no time for doubts. It was the earliest that United have scored a Premier League goal since the first game of the season. When Ander Herrera’s deflected shot looped over Neil Etheridge, it meant that the team had scored from their first two shots on target under Solskjaer.

But it was the third goal - an immediate response to the penalty awarded to and scored by Cardiff - that reeked of a team playing with real confidence again. There was nothing particularly surprising about Anthony Martial’s inch-perfect finish but the build-up to it was unfamiliar. This was the one-touch passing at pace that United have not been producing.

As well as the remarkable five-goal statistic, this was also the first time in over a year that United had scored three goals in the first half of a Premier League game. Were they really being shackled so badly?

Cardiff are not the strongest opponents that Solskjaer will have to face but the signs of greater enthusiasm cannot be ignored. Consider the tracking data that shows the distance covered by the players and the number of high-intensity sprints that they make. It has been startlingly low all season under Mourinho.

United were outrun by their opponents in 16 of their first 17 Premier League games this season with the only exception being the 160 extra metres that they covered against Fulham. This was very different. By half-time, United had outrun Cardiff by more than two kilometres. By the final whistle, the gulf was more than five kilometres. Astonishing.

As for sprints, United had made fewer of those than their opponents in 15 of the previous 17 games this season. This time they made 119 sprints to Cardiff’s 99. Again, it is a difference that tells a tale.

It will need more than running to take United forward in the long term but it is certainly a start. Solskjaer’s former team-mate Gary Neville frequently made the point that Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford had descended into a situation where he was simply picking the few remaining players he could trust. Coming at it with fresh eyes and no baggage has helped.

Solskjaer has been able to get the most talented players back on the pitch. Paul Pogba returned to the starting line-up after being left on the bench throughout the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool. Martial was back in the team too as part of a mobile front three alongside Rashford and Jesse Lingard that had far too much energy and quality for Cardiff. There was a speed and incision to their work, evident in the 11th minute when Martial cut through the Cardiff defence to win a corner. Even after the break, when it would have been tempting to take a step back and defend their two-goal lead against opponents who had won four of their previous five home games in the Premier League, United pressed on.

In fact, the ambition only increased with a series of interchanges on the edge of the Cardiff area. Lingard ran into the box with purpose to win a penalty and then insisted on taking it himself, calmly sending Etherington the wrong way. Victor Lindelof was next to get involved, bursting forward from the back to slide Rashford through for the chance to make it five.

In the end, it was the rejuvenated Pogba who provided the assist for the fifth goal - Lingard’s second of the match. Every outfield starter for United either had a shot on goal or created a chance for a team-mate. It was that sort of evening. A night in which United had more possession than in any other game so far this season.

There will be more difficult matches than this one, of course, but this was not all about the opposition. This was about a much-maligned team showing that they can play. They showed that if the full-backs get forward then they have the players who can take advantage of the space it creates.

Solskjaer was always certain of returning to Old Trafford as a hero. The banner bearing his name will be back between the Stretford End and the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand on Boxing Day. But the fact that Huddersfield are the visitors that day with another home fixture against Bournemouth wrapping up the year, offers an opportunity.

Getting United back to the top remains a long-term project but this performance suggests that one of the stumbling blocks to progress - the relationship between an unhappy manager and his even more unhappy players - has been removed. United might not need to wait six months to begin moving forwards after all. The change is already apparent.