The United renaissance will be tested by two clashes with Liverpool

A FEW week ago, after Arsenal had won at Old Trafford, the backside seemed to be dropping out of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s world. Manchester United had been beaten by Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Arsenal at home and the knives were out. Now, some 11 games later, United are top of the Premier League, they are unbeaten in that period and they go to Liverpool next full of confidence. Talk of Solskjaer getting the sack has subsided and the “next manager out” odds have shortened on the likes of Frank Lampard.

It’s a merry-go-round, Premier League management. This season, the baton of imminent departure has been passed from Ole to Mikel to Frank, let alone the others who slip in and out of the danger zone. 

The problem is, expectations are so astronomically high at the big six clubs, especially United where, since the early 1990s, they have been fed on a diet of almost constant success. Even since 2013-14, when Sir Alex moved upstairs to the padded seats, United have won three trophies, not exactly starvation rations, but not what a huge sporting empire anticipates to keep the shareholders and fans happy.

United’s recovery has surprised most people, though, and when club acolyte Gary Neville says nobody saw it coming, then really, nobody saw it coming. But this is a strange season and not too many clubs have been consistent, a decent run can elevate your position significantly. 

Liverpool may have lost the leadership after no wins in a three-game sequence. Not a crisis, but after 2019-20’s all-conquering run, some people will feel as though the crown is slipping a little. That 7-2 defeat at Villa Park earlier in the season will stick long in the memory, but the crown’s not slipping at all, it’s just a little harder this season and the Klopp high-octane style may not suit fixture congestion.

Manchester City were, supposedly, in a slump at one stage, but they’ve lost only twice and were on a seven-game unbeaten run. Chelsea, too, went nine games without defeat before losing four in six. Tottenham were being cast as title contenders on the back of 10 unbeaten then had a four-game run without a victory. Arsenal were on the brink of a major crisis when they went seven games without a win bonus but then picked up nine points from three. Leeds, who have lost half of their 16 games, don’t have a problem! 

Looking at United’s results this term provides few clues as to why they have improved so much from the early games. Firstly, they are unbeaten away from home, all their defeats have been at Old Trafford. Does behind-closed-doors have anything to do with that? Or maybe the Harry Maguire saga was a contributory factor to their malaise? They have scored some impressive away victories, though: Everton, Southampton and Newcastle and a 2-2 draw at Leicester was credible.

The team that went top of the Premier on January 12 after beating Burnley was little changed from the side trounced at home by Tottenham – Edinson Cavani for Mason Greenwood was the only difference.

Take the three home defeats out of the equation and United have had a very good season, but is that such a surprise? Bruno Fernandes has been the key and must rank as one of the club’s best signings in years. Since the Portuguese joined the club at the end of January 2020, United have earned more Premier League points than any of their rivals, and that includes Liverpool. The experience and technical savvy of Cavani has also played a small part in their recovery.

But be warned. In this most peculiar of campaigns, things can change quickly. A run of poor games can undo all the work of earlier months and this weekend’s clash with old foes Liverpool will be real litmus test on the durability of this current United are. If they lose, for example, can they quickly bounce back from adversity?

The way they have quietly gone about their business since their uncertain start suggests they can, but it could be that two clashes with those other “Reds” may actually define 2020-21 – they face them again in the FA Cup fourth round at Old Trafford. A testing couple of weeks for Solskjaer and his men.

Photo: PA Images

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