BEVERLY HILLS, January 13, (THEWILL) – Manchester United has arrived at the summit of the EPL. This came after surviving difficult pockets of uncertainty when results did not go their way in the English Premier League (EPL) and the harsh reality of crashing out of the prestigious UEFA Champions League. These, combined with other dismaying results at the initial games of the 2020/2021 campaign, which also threatened to undo their season and cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job..
Their title-winning credentials based on their momentum and, more importantly, their improvement, is now impossible to deny. They reached that milestone through a narrow, unattractive lone goal victory at a tough Burnley ground on Tuesday.
These precious three points edged United ahead of Liverpool in the Premier League standings. The red Devils first place position in the table at this time of the season is a first since the 2012/2013 campaign, which incidentally was the year of their last League trophy. It was also the final season with Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm at Old Trafford.
Things have not been the same ever since. The ferocity that United was known for in getting results dissipated and the fortress that the Theatre of Dreams at Old Trafford was known for was lost; no longer filling opposing teams with the mental dread it previously used to evoke. The club also had to suffer cycling through five managers in just over five years in search of a return to those days.
Today, there are signs that hope for that return is on the horizon. And as strange as it looks, there is a familiarity to it. United are back on top in the second half of an EPL campaign after almost eight years in the wilderness. It is from this strong position over defending champions Liverpool, who are second on the log, that the Red Devils will come into Sunday’s head-to-head against Jurgen Klopp’s charges.
Although victory for the men from Anfield will put them back in first place, the margin will be the slim edge of goal difference over Solskjaer’s men. That is why pundits are applauding United’s title prospects. They have reached the top courtesy of nine wins in an 11-match unbeaten run that lifted the team from 15th.
The fact remains that the 2020/2021 season is unlike any other in a variety of ways, no less with the raging pandemic on the United Kingdom add a while. And, the specific characteristics of United’s charge up the table, reflects that fact.
What has characterised Man U’s success is an unbeaten away record, a different turn from the time when Old Trafford was their stomping ground. This season, they have taken seven wins from eight away games against a more pedestrian home record. The possibility exists that the lack of fans might be a factor here which has effectively levelled out some of the home-field advantage.
In addition to those details, their resurgence has been shepherded by a manager who has been on the precipice of dismissal so many times. The stats reveal that the Norwegian has a worse winning percentage than his predecessor Jose Mourinho and is still without a definitive game philosophy nor has he truly sorted out how to bring the talent the side possesses into a cohesive unit.
Yet, with all that in his negative margin, here the team is, sitting comfortably on top. In spite of all that, they are three points clear of the defending champions, who have a more stable team and, arguably, more tactical manager in charge at Anfield.
Concurrent with their climb up the table was the restoration of Paul Pogba’s influence and midfield dominance which has complimented the contributions of their key player Bruno Fernandes. That it was his volley, which deflected off two defenders before slipping through keeper Nick Pope’s legs and into the net, which ultimately gave them the three points against Burnley on Tuesday seemed almost like poetic justice.
At the moment, there are still chinks that need filling and bolts that require tightening to make the side more competent. The expensively assembled side still has porous connective tissues as the competency across all departments has not shown the complementary quality on the pitch that is reflected on paper. Every once in a while, they click as when they thrashed RB Leipzig 5-0, but often quickly become undone like in the return of former manager Jose Mourinho to Old Trafford where they were roundly beaten 6-1 by Tottenham Hotspur.
From all these, Solskjaer will take consolation that there have been enough of their better days recently as United begins to dream again of glory. The truth is that the United teams of those title-winning seasons, were not exactly entirely imperious. They simply learned to win even in unexpected circumstances.
Solskjaer’s charges may not yet be back to their best, or as good as they can be, but in this most unusual of seasons, they have done enough to top the table at this stage of the season, with almost half the season played. And they can take encouragement from the 2012/2013 side that similarly topped the table mid-January and went on to EPL glory.
As strong title contenders as they have shown themselves to be, the Red Devils are back in the conversation. And the game against Liverpool takes on more significance now than ever before.