Manchester United are up to third, with even Roy Keane wondering if they could run Premier League leaders Liverpool close. It’s time for a title charge at Old Trafford.
Was this the day Manchester United announced their title credentials? What they are doing certainly can’t hurt.
Last month, Roy Keane told Sky Sports Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s players “will get him the sack”. On Sunday, following their 6-2 demolition of Leeds, he said “there’s no reason United can’t push” all the way in the Premier League title race. A lot has changed in six short weeks.
Realistically, Solskjaer’s side have been going along under the radar for some time now, winning six out of their last seven games to cut the gap to the top of the table down to five points, albeit with performances far from perfect. In back-to-back wins against Southampton and West Ham within the last month, at half-time in both they looked more like a team fighting relegation than for the title.
But now, win their to-be-rearranged game in hand against Burnley, whenever that may be, and the gap would be down to two. From talk of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job hanging in the balance little over a month ago, his Manchester United side could now be about to emerge as Liverpool’s closest challengers.
Finishing third last season was “an improvement, but not where we want to be” according to Solskjaer himself ahead of Sunday’s 6-2 thrashing of Leeds at Old Trafford.
That is the position his United side now occupy again, five months on from securing Champions League qualification on the final day of the 2019/20 season. But far from the 33-point gap to champions Liverpool last season, United could find themselves within a sniff of Jurgen Klopp’s leaders when they travel to Anfield on January 17.
What has Solskjaer changed in a few short months? Perhaps not all that much. The signs have been there for a while this United side have serious potential – but defensive issues and fitness troubles have dogged them at times in the early weeks of the campaign.
The problems with playing on the counter-attack look like they might finally be behind them. Sitting deep and hitting on the break, which worked so well in the early weeks of Solskjaer’s reign, was all well and good against open teams, but as opponents then began to sit deep, goals and results quickly dried up.
It’s a problem that has taken time and money to fix, but it is no exaggeration to suggest the arrival of Bruno Fernandes has been the key.
Across Solskjaer’s career as United manager, United have picked up 2.15 points per game when they have less than 50 per cent of possession but when they do not, that falls to barely 1.7 points per game.
Since Fernandes has joined, that gap has been extinguished. In the 27 games since his debut against Wolves in January, United have a better record with a majority of the ball than without it.
Even so, as recently as November 8, United’s 3-1 win at Everton was the only thing that stopped them recording their worst start to a league season in more than 30 years. Their home points tally coming into Saturday’s game with Leeds was their lowest after six games at Old Trafford since the 1930s.
“The name of the game is proving people wrong,” Keane told Sky Sports after United trebled their home goal record from this season in 90 short minutes. “Maybe, just maybe, this group of players can do that.”
That question mark will still remain until United can prove themselves more than a team with a streak in them; the kind which saw them shake off a dreadful start a year ago to lose only two of their last 25 and sneak into the Champions League spots on the final day.
With the gap to the leaders so slight, this could be the time. “If they can get their house in order at home, there’s no reason they can’t stay up there,” Keane added. United are on their best league run away from home, with 10 straight wins on the road. “You wonder what they could do if they sorted out their home form.”
Perhaps this is the time. “We looked a fitter, stronger team,” was Solskjaer’s accurate assessment after demolishing Leeds. His side had just run 5km further than in their opening-game humbling by Crystal Palace at Old Trafford. They have only put in more of a physical shift on home soil this season when holding Chelsea to a 0-0 draw in late October.
Defensive issues may prove the manager’s biggest concern still; his side have kept three clean sheets all season, only one more than 19th-placed West Bromwich Albion. But on such an impressive run of away league wins, back to fitness on home soil and even giving Keane reason to smile, it is worth wondering how close United are to staying the course.
When is the next Crystal Palace, when is the next Arsenal? Who knows. But Keane is a man ready to eat his words. “I think Liverpool are still the best, but there’s no reason why United can’t fancy their chances of pushing them.”
Leicester, Wolves, Aston Villa and Fulham are their next four fixtures before facing Liverpool in the new year. Take this momentum to Anfield, and never say never.