Table looking healthier for the Reds
Suddenly, the Premier League table looks a lot healthier if you're a Manchester United fan.
The Reds are finally in the top half after the 1-0 win over West Brom on Saturday evening and, if we win our game in hand, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side will be just four points off the pace currently being set, at the time of writing, by Tottenham Hotspur. Look at the top eight, as a whole, and it's clear that this Premier League is very much up for grabs.
The infernal, white-hot pace set by Liverpool and Manchester City during the last couple of seasons is, at the moment, not being replicated in this unprecedented 2020/21 campaign. On Sunday morning, the top three reads unfamiliarly: Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester. The top eight even more so, with Southampton, Aston Villa, Everton and Crystal Palace all riding high. There is a sense that almost everyone is taking time to get to grips with the new season: the lack of fans; the intensity of the fixture schedule; the inevitably regular injuries; the almost weekly shifts in VAR policy. United have not yet found the form we showed in the spring, when goals and wins came easily; when we raced up the table to claw our way to a third-place finish, against the odds. But Ole's men have now won consecutive games for the first time this term. A win against Istanbul Basaksehir on Tuesday will make it three in a row, and keep Solskjaer's side on top of the Champions League group. The one that was being hyped as 'a group of death' before United went to Paris and won, and then followed it up by battering last season's semi-finalists RB Leipzig 5-0.
The Reds were not inspired against West Brom. We needed a penalty-kick - scored at the second attempt by Bruno Fernandes - and laboured during the game's final stages. But the team got over the line. And, as Ole noted after the match, that shouldn’t be scoffed at, given the awkward preparations that led up to the fixture. Solskjaer was fuming after United's 3-1 win at Everton before the international break, because his team were granted barely 48 hours to prepare for the match against Carlo Ancelotti's side, after returning from a game in Turkey. Before West Brom, other considerations hampered the build-up. “We had everyone back yesterday but we didn't know the test results,” said the United manager. “And we hadn't had the COVID tests back before the session [yesterday] so all our prep was this morning. “So it's not easy when you only have 20 minutes or half an hour prepping for this game. But we're ready now to go again on Tuesday. Three points, home win, no more talk about that, but we need to keep consistent performances, better performances than this. We know that. If we want to move up the table, we have to play better.”
No fans could argue with that after watching the West Brom clash. Chances were missed, VAR was relied upon – at both ends of the field – and the entertainment levels didn't exactly scream 'primetime Saturday night'. But as Nemanja Matic said afterwards: no-one will be asking how we played at the end of the season. Every team is going to have periods where they play well and flourish. And, equally, even the best teams are likely to be hit by injuries and small crises of confidence. For all the criticism United have received for some of our Premier League performances, it did not go unnoticed that the win over the Baggies took the Reds above Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal – two sides that generally receive much more praise. To reiterate the thrust of Matic’s argument: all that matters is points, especially in a season that is already pushing so many elite Premier League squads to their physical and mental limits.
United might remain adrift in the table, at least in terms of placings, but we are just seven points off the lead, and with that aforementioned game in hand. The Reds were 15 points behind league leaders Liverpool at the same stage last year. But for all the chaos and inconsistency that has marked the opening to 2020/21, the boys are still in touch and still have the chance to contest the Premier League title. That might seem fanciful after a narrow first home league victory of the season, against a West Brom side that are yet to win a game themselves. But there are 30 games left to play for Solskjaer's Reds. And, as last season told us, a lot can change between November and May. United need to improve. But, if we do – if we can continue the momentum from Everton and West Brom – we might well surprise a few people.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.