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Are Man United now genuine title contenders?

After hitting a lowpoint against Tottenham, the Red Devils have improved vastly since then.

Man United players celebrate.
Man United players celebrate.
Image: PA

FOR A WHILE, it felt like a running joke, such was the regularity with which Man United would improbably survive various crises under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Every couple of months, talk of acclaimed ex-Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino joining the Old Trafford outfit seemed to intensify, only for Solskjaer’s side to pull off a big result that would restore confidence to the flailing club.

Perhaps the most worrying time of all for the Norwegian was the 6-1 defeat at home to Tottenham early on in the season, which saw them drop to 16th in the table.

A distinct media narrative was drawn in some quarters. A managerial master in Jose Mourinho had come back to haunt his old club, apparently showing how foolish they were to dismiss him, while exposing the rookie coach’s inadequacies in the process.

Yet here we are at almost the exact midway point of the season in terms of games played and Man United sit top of the table, six points ahead of Mourinho’s side

At the time of the Spurs defeat, the atmosphere at the club was certainly grim.

“It is the worst day of my career as Manchester United manager and the worst day for all of them as United players,” Solskjaer told BBC Sport.

“It is not the worst day in Manchester United history, we have bounced back before.

“To explain now is quite difficult. We have been beaten 6-1 at home by a very good side but we have contributed a lot to our own downfall.

“I know the boys wanted to and they made an effort but making mistakes, everyone makes mistakes and today we made loads in the same game. That shows in the result.

“We have to address what we have. The players there are better than what we are showing and we have to come out fighting as a group.”

So what’s changed since then? An international break in the immediate aftermath of the Spurs loss certainly helped calm the storm.

And perhaps one stroke of good fortune as far as Solskjaer was concerned was Liverpool losing 7-2 to Aston Villa later that fateful Sunday.

It was a reminder that a heavy defeat is not necessarily proof that a club is in freefall.

The reigning champions getting hammered suggested that such freak results can happen to almost anyone, particularly at a time when the pandemic was wreaking havoc on the football schedule and elite players were being asked to play an unreasonable amount of games in such a short space of time.

The Spurs defeat, though, was not a standalone poor performance. In fact, it reflected an unconvincing start to the season from United in general.

They began with a 3-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace and were fortunate to earn a subsequent 3-2 victory against Brighton.

They at least tightened up defensively thereafter, drawing 0-0 with Chelsea and losing 1-0 against Arsenal.

And since the Gunners defeat, the Red Devils have gone on a remarkable domestic run. They haven’t lost a top-flight game since, winning nine of their next 11 league games and drawing the other two.

Pochettino seemingly giving up hope on getting the United job and accepting PSG’s offer recently felt like a symbolic win for Solskjaer.

Moreover, while there has been the odd considerable setback, such as the Champions League group stages exit earlier this season, there has also been evidence of real progress overall since the Norwegian took charge.

Despite an early bounce, after his initial appointment midway through the campaign, they finished a disappointing sixth in the 2018-19 campaign.

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There have been no shortage of turbulent moments for the former Cardiff boss — it’s almost a year to the day since the infamous Jamie Carragher-Roy Keane Sky debate, following United’s loss to Liverpool, when the Red Devils legend insisted the Norwegian needed more time to turn the situation around.

In the second half of last season though, largely inspired by signing the talismanic Bruno Fernandes in January, they managed a third-place finish and a return to the Champions League.

And as it stands, this season is on course to be their best yet.

Some astute signings, such as the acquisition of Edinson Cavani on a free transfer, have helped.

Solskjaer has also been more inclined to adopt a cautious approach since the Spurs match, with the likes of Fred and Scott McTominay seeing plenty of game time, often at the expense of World Cup winner Paul Pogba.

There is still, however, a suspicion that United could unravel, and they havethreatened to do so on occasion this season.

For instance, they found themselves trailing 2-0 against Southampton at half-time, before some smart substitutions saw them claim a dramatic 3-2 win.

It feels like their ceiling is not as high as a Liverpool or Man City. They rarely dominate teams and with the 6-2 thrashing of Leeds a notable exception, most of their games have been won by a single goal (7 out of 11 to be precise).

And whether they can maintain their current form and challenge come the end of the season is far from certain.

Sunday’s clash against Liverpool will be a good barometer of where they are at as a team.

In the really big games so far, they have generally struggled to find wins.

While Solskjaer was right to suggest they were better than the Tottenham thumping indicated, in fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal, Leicester and Man City, they failed to win any, taking three points from a possible 12.

As a consequence, you would still be inclined to make Jurgen Klopp’s side slight favourites this weekend. But then again, it’s been a crazy season where most experts’ predictions have been made to look foolish at one stage or another.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures:

Saturday

Wolves v West Brom (12.30)
Leeds v Brighton (15.00)
West Ham v Burnley (15.00)
Fulham v Chelsea (17.30)
Leicester City v Southampton (20.00)

Sunday

Sheffield United v Tottenham (14.00)
Liverpool v Man United (16.30)
Man City v Crystal Palace (19.15)

Monday

Arsenal v Newcastle (20.00)

Originally published at 15.18; Updated at 20.02

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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