By winning at Turf Moor on Tuesday, the Red Devils top the Premier League table for the first time since the opening day of the 2018-19 season. Given that they played the first game that weekend with Bournemouth bettering their result only a few hours later, only the most diehard supporter would have drawn any comfort from that brief stay at the summit. Manchester United eventually finished thirty-two points off the champions, Manchester City, come the end of the season.
To be top of the table halfway through the season though, is altogether another story. One cannot but be taken seriously when on an eleven-game unbeaten run (W9 D2) in the league. For all their troubles in recent years, a team with United’s history and record in the competition are bound to challenge at some point. A COVID-19 disrupted season, while throwing everyone’s planning and preparation out of whack, also provides opportunities for the established order to be disturbed. If one is in the position to take advantage. And United are.
For all the doubts about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and there are a few, he has now been in charge of the club for more than two years. The Norwegian has already outlasted David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal and is closing in fast on Jose Mourinho’s 144-game tenure with the Reds. The Portuguese has of course, since moved on to Spurs and is a little more than a year into his project there. The other usual suspects in Chelsea and Arsenal have novices in charge and in theory, should not have the nous to pull off a title heist.
A few high-profile losses in the Champions League have given the impression that the club has lurched from crisis to crisis, but the reality is that United had a great 2020. Only Liverpool and Manchester City scored more points and the Reds were at least eight points clear of a clump of teams tightly bunched together behind them. Bruno Fernandes’ signing has galvanized an institution that had assembled many high-profile players over the past few years but struggled to knit it all together.
So, are United in a title challenge? Yes. Will they go all the way? Possibly not.
There are parallels to be drawn with Liverpool’s own attempt at ending years of drought in 2014. For outsiders to put themselves in contention, they have to go on streaks that others cannot replicate over a large period of time. Until they lost to Chelsea at Anfield in the game that defined their season, Brendan Rodger’s side had gone sixteen games without defeat. The Red Devils’ last defeat away from home in the league incredibly came last January against Liverpool. They have since gone fifteen unbeaten on the road.
Rodger’s Liverpool benefited from a perceived weakness at the back; bringing teams onto them before counterattacking with ruthless precision. With a front three of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, their attack terrorized defences that season. They had a conundrum in midfield though. In Philippe Coutinho and Steven Gerrard, they did not have the most naturally defensive minded players and Jordan Henderson often had far too much to do in defensive transition. Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen were used to shore things up at times, usually away from home, but the Reds lacked balance and paid the price in the end.
Manchester United have similar structural issues and an open game suits their style of play. In such an encounter, they fancy out-scoring any opponent and so far, the rub of the green has mostly gone their way in the league. One could argue that a superior caliber of player in the Champions League has caught them out in that competition. Solskjaer can close shop when he wants to as evidenced by his tactics against the bigger teams. It is when their opponents refuse to overly engage themselves that United get stuck. Their last three encounters in the league against the supposed big six at home have gone this way.
Manchester United 0 – Manchester City 0. Manchester United 0 – Arsenal 1. Manchester United 0 – Chelsea 0.
When they did try to play, it ended 1-6 against Spurs. The one remaining big home fixture, against Liverpool in May, could have a huge bearing on their fortunes. Jürgen Klopp is far removed from the Mourinho ethos but on the 27th of April 2014, Chelsea arrived at Anfield and essentially allowed Liverpool to have all of the ball. The Reds stuttered and the rest is history. Manchester City, with their games in hand, were waiting for the slip-up and duly took advantage.
United are yet to play any of the big teams away from home this season. This makes the weekend’s top-of-the-table clash against the champions a bigger fixture than it already is. If Solskjaer’s side can end Liverpool’s mammoth 67-game unbeaten run at Anfield, they will back themselves to do that against the other top teams too.
Easier said than done though. It was only in the last month that Klopp’s side ended another eleven-match unbeaten run in the league. Like United, Tottenham arrived for their game top of the table. They ended it behind Liverpool and lost at home to Leicester three days later.
It doesn’t take much to end a title challenge. A Bruno Fernandes injury and Manchester United are back to square one. A lot of things have to fall into place and the Red Devils have not been tested on several fronts yet. Whatever the outcome on Sunday, there is a long way to go before United fans should start getting excited. Just ask their counterparts on Merseyside. Things can go pear-shaped fairly quickly.