Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has turned Man Utd corner but is right to approach with caution – Darren Wells
By the time the final whistle blows at Turf Moor on Tuesday night, Man Utd may well be top of the Premier League table again – a position that, as documented already, they have not been at this stage of the season in 13 years.
Suddenly a wave of optimism has sprung up around Old Trafford as talk of a serious title tilt begins to look something of a possibility.
But while fans may have been expecting a rallying call from their manager ahead of the crunch showdown with rivals Liverpool, the message from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was more ‘let’s not get ahead of ourselves here’.
“We have to go into every game humble, work hard, don’t even think for one second that you’ve cracked it if you are near the top,” he said at his pre-match press conference.
And quite rightly too.
With United there are still so many questions – ones that Solskjaer himself might not even know the answers to.
And there is nothing wrong with playing down expectations, particularly when winning the title was never an objective for this season, and when it suits your own interests as well.
It was, after all, only the start of last month that Solskjaer quipped he was only ever six games from the sack.
United’s recent form, along with the alleviation of the Pochettino-shaped pressure has gone a long way to suggesting that is no longer the case, and the club are committed to the long haul.
As too has the welcomed appointment of club legend Darren Fletcher into his backroom team, along with Solskjaer’s continued nod to the old ‘United DNA’.
Ed Woodward’s backing appears to be unwavering, and sure enough, providing United can keep relatively on this track until May, Solskjaer can be assured of another season in the hot seat.
But are they realistic title contenders?
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Well, they’re nine points better off than they were at this stage last season, with some notable improvements.
United are in a good moment. They deserve credit for that.
Yet let’s not forget why United have found themselves back in this position.
Liverpool have largely allowed United back into it, dropping seven points in their last three, rather than the Red Devils chasing them down as such.
That’s not United’s fault. Right place, right time, take advantage.
And a result at Burnley would mean they have more points on the board than any other team after 17 matches. Do that in 38 and there can be no arguments.
They have at times scraped through in previous fixtures, though, while labouring in others.
West Ham, Southampton, Wolves etc. Again not necessarily a criticism. That alone is the hallmark of champions, just not perhaps most games.
Even the Sheffield United win had some uncomfortable moments at the death.
And the results have arguably papered over the cracks.
It will be interesting to see how United fare when the going gets significantly tougher.
Yes they earned a solid point in the Manchester derby, but the League Cup semi-final defeat was perhaps a better barometer for their current standing, and a reminder of the hurdle they must still overcome before they can feel like they’ve ‘cracked it’.
Even ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ advocate Rio Ferdinand was keen to temper suggestions of United making it 21 in ’21.
“I don’t want to jump the gun like I’ve done before,” Ferdinand said when asked of the Red Devils’ title chances. “I don’t want to become a meme again.”
There are also other things still left open-ended.
Has, for instance, Solskjaer got Paul Pogba playing again? Or has Paul Pogba got Paul Pogba playing again, until he chooses otherwise?
Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof have looked more sturdy of late, but United’s defence remains a cause for concern.
And outside Old Trafford there is probably a warning board displaying the amount of days since David de Gea’s last mistake.
Solskjaer was keen to put United’s earlier struggles this season behind them, insisting they feel the season starts afresh from now.
But with that comes a new and different pressure on him and his players – a pressure they have buckled under previously (Sevilla, Leipzig et al), and a test they are yet to really pass.
Burnley is not the easiest place to go, but victory there is what is now required from United if they want to stay in the mix.
They then have the unenviable task of facing a Liverpool side at Anfield who’ve not lost a league game at home in over three years.
Yet if they want to be in the bracket of title contenders, leaving Merseyside with nothing less than a point will do.
Both of those things are possible. United have the squad capable of mounting a challenge if they all stay fit, and the star quality to come up with the goods in the big moments.
Their goalscoring record away from home is a testament to that.
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And in this season of all seasons, they certainly stand an outside chance. But Solskjaer is aware title talk is premature when his side is still a work in progress.
He’s turned a corner with United in recent weeks that suggests the club are heading in an upward trajectory again, but it can, as has happened previously, all too quickly unravel.
“It doesn’t matter where we end up in the league as long as we focus on this game and this game only,” were Solskjaer’s words.
If they emerge from the next two fixtures still top, United will by proxy be considered title challengers, whether Solskjaer wants that tag or not.
The bigger questions will be: can they sustain it? And for how long?
Guess we’re about to find out.