Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United have been a wildly unpredictable side who have fluctuated from the sublime to the ridiculous, often within a short space of time.
Man United’s exit from the Champions League in the group stages was only two weeks ago. In the aftermath of their 3-2 defeat by RB Leipzig the talk was all doom and gloom. Should the club sack Solskjaer? Should David de Gea be jettisoned permanently? What can be done about the leaky defence?
Their Champions League failure has masked their league form, which has quietly propelled them to third place in the Premier League. Man United are now just five points behind leaders Liverpool, with a game in hand.
Sunday’s 6-2 thrashing of rivals Leeds United has stirred the opinions of fans and pundits alike. After overcoming a slow start to the season, are Man United now genuine contenders for the Premier League title?
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“If United can get their house in order at home, there’s no reason why United can’t stay up there,” former Man United midfielder Roy Keane told Sky Sports.
“I think Liverpool are still the best, but there’s no reason why United should be fancying their chances in terms of pushing Liverpool.”
Keane’s former team-mate Gary Neville is of a different opinion. “You just watch them and think there isn’t a team emerging there who can challenge for the title,” he said on his podcast. “My gut feeling is to still say I don’t think Manchester United are going to win the league.”
So, can Man United mount a sustained challenge for the title? Are they capable of finding the consistency required over a 38-game season?
There are plenty of reasons to suggest they can. Firstly and most obviously, their league position is the result of impressive form. Man United have won six of their last seven league games, with the other result a 0-0 stalemate in the Manchester derby.
Secondly, they have shown resilience through an uncanny ability to bounce back. Man United have come from behind in four of their last six Premier League victories. While that fact can be read as weakness – an indication of a team that struggles to get out of the blocks – it is also undeniably a sign of their firepower.
Of course, that firepower, which blew away Everton, Southampton, West Ham and Sheffield United in their own grounds, always should be the case at a club with the financial might of Man United.
SBK odds for the 2020/21 Premier League title winner:
Manchester City: 13/5
Man United: 10/1
A front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes should be wreaking havoc every now and then, even without the added bonus of goals from the likes of Scott McTominay.
A quick glance over the options available to Solskjaer on his newly-deepened bench against Leeds tells you all you need to know. It read: Alex Telles, Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Mason Greenwood, Dean Henderson, Nemanja Matic, Donny van der Beek and Edinson Cavani.
That is the sort of depth other Premier League sides dream of and unsurprisingly the statistics reflect it.
Man United boast the second-best attack in the league so far this season, behind only league leaders Liverpool, who boosted their own record by putting seven high-quality goals past Crystal Palace at the weekend.
Solskjaer’s side have netted 28 goals in 13 matches so far, 19 of which have come from open play – and from just 23 big chances created. Their tally of 191 shots, with 78 on target, is similar to their rivals at the top end of the league.
Despite misses like those from Martial against Leeds, Man United’s finishing in general has been impressive. They are, in fact, outperforming their expected goals total of 21.35.
The problem, of course, is at the other end, where their defence is holding them back.
Man United have conceded 21 goals in the league so far – more than any other side in the top half, while they have only kept three clean sheets, all of which have come at home: in goalless draws with Chelsea and Man City and in a 1-0 win over struggling West Bromwich Albion.
They have allowed 107 shots from inside their own box – a considerable difference to Man City, whose tally stands at just 64. According to their expected goals model they should have shipped 18 goals so far, not 21.
That under performance is particularly clear at Old Trafford, where they have managed just two wins out of seven so far. Before netting six against Leeds they hadn’t scored more than one goal in any of their last seven home Premier League matches
That record is a huge problem, because Solskjaer’s modus operandi is the counter-attack. Man United have shown time and again that they are more than proficient when it comes to sitting in and springing fast counters, with Fernandes’ fantastic range of passing setting free the pace of Rashford, Martial and Dan James to great effect.
Solskjaer’s side are sitting pretty for now, but their title credentials will be truly tested soon. Man United travel to play second-placed Leicester City next on Boxing Day before hosting Wolves and Aston Villa at Old Trafford. After that? The unenviable task of playing the defending champions at Anfield on 17 January.
Get through that run of fixtures with their title challenge still intact and we will know far more about Man United’s potential to win a first Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferugson’s last season in charge in 2012/13.