So, are Manchester United finally… good again? And by good I don’t mean top four good; we know they were that good since Bruno Fernades arrived in January 2020 from Sporting Lisbon. By good I mean can actually challenge for a league title good. Because ultimately, that is what a Manchester United side is judged upon. Yes, the top four helps bring in the Champions League TV revenues which keep the club ticking and the owner’s pockets filled. But for the fans, titles and more importantly league titles are the yardsticks for success.
All season long United have been in the shadow of their local rivals Manchester City who have romped to the league title with swagger and style under the greatest manager in the world at the moment, Pep Guardiola. But as we head into the final 7 league games of the season, United could be only 8 points behind Manchester City if they win their game in hand. While there is no question City will win the league despite losing to Leeds United at the weekend, there is a sense that Manchester United could have had a title challenge if they started the season with the same vein of form they are in right now.
Starting to get the feeling that United are a good start to the season away from a proper title charge pic.twitter.com/qY12L9ft0L
— Tom Worville (@Worville) April 11, 2021
The graph above shows United’s Expected Goals For and Against throughout the season on a 10 game rolling average basis. In simpler terms, the blue line basically shows how many chances they are creating and the red line shows how many they are conceding in each game. As you can see United were terrible in the early parts of the season – losing to the likes of Palace, Tottenham and Arsenal at home – but since then have improved greatly. Their form in the past 20 weeks has been title worthy, having not lost a game in the league since February and winning the last four on the bounce.
More importantly, they are winning games in different ways and through different players. Bruno Fernandes – the man who did almost everything for them at the start of the season – has only scored once in 6 league games and they aren’t solely reliant on transition moments and counter-attacking play to score. Their latest league win over Tottenham was a prime example of that. After going 1-0 down against a Tottenham side that likes to defend deep, United were able to break through the Spurs low block with great build-up play and incisive movement from Edinson Cavani.
All three goals were the product of smart interchange play in the midfield before releasing either Cavani or Greenwood for deadly strikes in the box. What was more pleasing about this game from a United perspective was that Solskjaer’s side continued to show the resilience and character that is often the mark of Champion teams. United have won 28 points from losing positions this season – the third most in Premier League history – and the away win at Tottenham was another example of that. United probably harshly found themselves 1-0 down at half-time after Edinson Cavani’s goal was ruled out due to a foul in the build-up. Nevertheless, they didn’t let this incident define the game and went on to blitz Tottenham in the second half to win 3-1.
The question can be asked as to why United find themselves in losing positions as often as they do. But United’s game-plan is incredibly clear and effective when they have something to chase.
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The next step is to do what Manchester City have done and that is dominate games and the league and launch a genuine title challenge. That is the ultimate test for Solskjaer and Manchester United must make another jump next season and challenge City and Liverpool who will retool and come back with a vengeance. The Paul Pogba situation needs a resolution as soon as possible and if he is to be moved on, the money needs to be reinvested into the squad.
The main areas United need to strengthen in the summer are in central defensive midfield, right-wing and a partner for Harry Maguire at centre back. The Jadon Sancho saga dominated the back pages in the summer of 2020 and it will be interesting to see whether Manchester United open that can of worms again this transfer window. In midfield, the reports suggest that their number one target is West Ham’s Declan Rice who has gone up a level this season and taken the Hammers to the Top 4. United are not that far away from challenging to a league title but it is these few steps – like Liverpool signing Van Dijk and Allison and City signing Ruben Dias – that are incredibly crucial.
It is important to remember that Manchester United have been here before recently, only for it to fall flat the season after. Jose Mourinho’s United finished 2nd in 2017/18 – 19 points behind Manchester City – only to come crashing down the season after which saw Jose sacked from the job 4 months into the new season. The hope is that this time around this runner up finish can actually be the springboard for success which could see Manchester United once again competing for titles that once used to be their birthright.
[Image Credit: Manchester United]