Liverpool’s 7-0 demolition of Crystal Palace on Saturday grabbed the headlines, as Jurgen Klopp’s title-favourites ensured that they will sit atop the Premier League at Christmas for the third year running. Yet their bitter rivals, Manchester United, produced their own statement win on Sunday by routing Leeds United in a 6-2 victory, which moves The Red Devils into third place in the table. Is it now time to accept that Manchester United are well and truly in the title race this season?
It feels like a ridiculous question to ask somehow. The sort of suggestion that is likely to end in mocking GIFs and memes if posed to the wrong corners of football Twitter. But why is that the case? They remain a footballing powerhouse, who continue to spend extraordinary amounts of money on high profile players and who, if they win their game in hand, would be in second place and just two points behind the widely-lauded Liverpool. So why does connecting the words ‘Manchester United’ and ‘title race’ cause you to blush?
For one thing it flies in the face of the ongoing narrative across the media and social media that this Manchester United season, and Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s overall reign, is a shambles. Every single loss or setback that the Norwegian suffers is met with sarcastic and tired ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ jokes as well as references to the continued availability of Mauricio Pochettino. For full disclosure, I’ve been guilty of it in the past. Yet are we all doing Solskjaer a great disservice?
Their exit from the Champions League group stage was an undeniable shambles and goes some way to explaining the current mood. Having won their opening two matches, against PSG and RB Leipzig, United conspired to lose away to group outsiders Istanbul Basaksehir. It was a result that would leave them needing to beat either the French of Germans again, a feat that ultimately proved beyond them as they slipped to third and the ignominy of the Europa League.
However, in the Premier League Manchester United have surreptitiously crept into title race contention with over a third of the season gone and, after losing three of their opening six games, are now on an unbeaten run of seven. Six of the seven were victories, including respectable defeats of Everton, Southampton, West Ham and Leeds with the draw coming against Manchester City.
Despite this undeniably positive form, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has received little in the way of praise this season, whereas Frank Lampard and Jose Mourinho, the latter in particular, have been portrayed far more favourably despite being lower in the table. In fact United are now four points clear of Chelsea despite a net spend of around £80m less in the summer.
Even the commentators in the Leeds game waxed lyrical about how brave Leeds were in defeat rather than pay United the lip service they deserved for such a ruthless, attacking performance.
Perhaps the issue with United is that even their positive results feel shambolic, such is their tendency to fall behind at the beginning of games before digging themselves out of trouble. In a league table of points earned from losing positions, United would sit in first place with 18. That is eight more than Liverpool in second. In fact, six of United’s eight league wins so far this season have been claimed after falling behind.
They’ve also scored eight of their 28 league goals, nearly a third, in the last 15 minutes of games, furthering their reputation as a side who like to make things difficult for themselves. However, Sir Alex Ferguson, the man against whom every Manchester United manager is compared and who Solskjaer idolises, was infamous for late goals. The phrase ‘Fergie Time’ was even coined to account for the number of injury time goals that his United side would score to get themselves out of trouble. So why is this characteristic deemed a strength for one manager but seemingly viewed as a weakness for another?
Another false line repeatedly peddled regards United’s squad strength. Their bench for the 6-2 trouncing of Leeds was; Dean Henderson, Eric Bailly, Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba, Alex Telles and Donny van der Beek. Can you name another side in world football with a stronger line up of substitutes this weekend?
For so long, Manchester United were the first name mentioned in any title race discussion. They dominated English football for much of the 90s and 00s and their briliance was normalised to such an extent that it still feels bizarre that they have faltered so much in recent seasons. The greatest curse for any Manchester United manager or player in 2020 is the inevitable comparisons made by the array of old boys littered throughout the media (Keane, Neville, Scholes etc) to the way things used to be. However, the era of Ferguson, the Class of ’92 and the treble winners is over and the world needs to move on.
For the foreseeable future, United are doomed to be judged on yardsticks set at a different time in their history and until they do finally return to the summit of English football and win the Premier League, they might never get that monkey off their back. It probably won’t be this season but don’t be fooled by the ongoing narrative, Manchester United are revelling in their underdog status and are serious contenders in this title race.