Not even the most optimistic Manchester United supporter would have predicted, following the 6-1 defeat to Spurs in October, that come the trip to Anfield in January, the club would be topping the Premier League with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager.
You might have believed one or the other, but the combination seemed completely unrealistic.
But that’s exactly what was achieved with last night’s victory at Burnley, a win that continued a remarkable sequence of results since United were eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage.
That was just 36 days ago. One month and one week ago, there were serious questions over every aspect of the football club. The owners, the men the owners put in charge of operating the club, the manager, his staff, the players.
Expectations were low.
Clearly, five weeks is a long time in football.
There were 85 days between the defeat to Spurs and the defeat to Leipzig. This was a period of time where one result to the next could see a cacophony of self-justified overreactions. A win was definite proof that Solskjaer is a tactical mastermind. A defeat was definite proof that he was a PE teacher and should be sacked. A good performance was because the players were always good. A bad, because they never have been.
We lurched from one bipolar assessment to the next and sometimes, as a special treat, we’d get the good and bad in the same game.
When United allowed sixty shots at them in the first three games – from Palace, Brighton and Spurs – and were outplayed in each, a relegation battle didn’t seem out of the picture. What seemed a safer, less hysterical bet, was that the club would pay the price for not strengthening the squad sufficiently, and that there would be some cost.
That cost came in the failure in the Champions League. The owners did not sanction certain transfers, the transfer policy seemed messy in the last few days of the window, and the entire process of qualifying for the tournament as an objective was completely undermined by the squad not being equipped to deal with it once they were in it.
A recent report in the Athletic – or the headline, at least – suggested that the owners are waiting to see how things go at Anfield before deciding on the transfer strategy for this month, if there even is to be one. The implication there is that a win would presumably mean United are serious contenders for the title and so that’s how the ambition will be reflected.
And if they draw or lose? Nothing? One player instead of two? We’ll be slightly less serious about improving the squad?
It is without question that the biggest issue at the club is the owners and their reactivity rather than proactivity. Success can be achieved even with this structure but that attitude needs to change in order for it to be the case. Still, I suppose being told that it is a reactive policy is a development.
I share the excitement of every United fan that we are heading into a big game and it is a genuinely big game, even though we still haven’t reached the halfway stage of the season.
I find myself expressing a little concern only to temper expectations. The hopes for this season, after the defeat to Spurs – and to be honest, it should have been this way at the start of the season, too, with the squad we have – was to attempt to consolidate the Champions League position.
United are in top position now but are not in a title race yet. Nor should one be expected – so if, and probably when, the form dips and United fall away from the top, it should be acknowledged for what it was. A temporary over-achievement with an indication of how good things can be if everything is going right.
There have been two phrases we have heard much of in the last few weeks. Eric Bailly is finally showing himself as the best centre-half at the club. Solskjaer has finally got the best out of Paul Pogba.
I want as much as anyone for these to be definite and permanent changes because we can see the difference it makes. But we have surely been here too often to invest expectation in it being permanent. Thirty six days is usually the shelf-life before either Bailly gets injured or Pogba’s form drops.
Much like the rest of this season, though, I find myself just waiting to see and willing to be proved wrong. United are overachieving and we’re seeing the benefit of many things that nobody would have expected. When Alex Telles was signed we all thought it would be the end of Luke Shaw; Shaw’s form subsequently has been the best it’s ever been, with a special improvement in his crossing which should have been rewarded with an assist last night.
Persistence with Lindelof and Maguire has helped them be a little more stable although the addition of Bailly alongside Maguire does three things – the first is an obvious collective improvement, the second is an obvious improvement for Maguire, and the third is that lingering point – if Bailly can’t remain fit, then we know just how much another good defender would make a difference, and how much it does improve Maguire.
Solskjaer has now got a strong grasp on the capability of his midfielders and what games they are best suited for. He’s not afraid to drop any of them. He doesn’t always get it right and it’s still confusing to consider what’s happening with Van De Beek but it is right more often than not.
Perhaps another creative player from the wings would help improve the goal return of Martial but United do have a good set of options up front and this has again been aided by strong and sensible action from the manager.
Just last week we saw that in the top level games there still seems to be a quality gap – the difference in making the step that many seem fooled into thinking we’ve already made. Maybe seven days is longer than 36 in the mind of some? But we saw the three or four areas where United needed to step up – the quality in defensive midfield to assert a greater control of games, the creativity from wide, the deadliness of finishing and a greater overall quality in defence.
United need these reinforcements regardless of Sunday’s result. Realistically they need at least one to make Champions League qualification more certain (the gap to fifth is only seven points) and less of a gamble.
It seems peculiar that the board would issue briefings to this tune; to suggest their attitude to transfer activity will depend on something so temporary as opposed to the bigger picture. Mind, it was also suggested that qualifying for the Champions League would enable the club to convince a higher clientele of player and that most certainly did not happen, and let’s be frank, you’d be more foolish to trust in the briefing of those running the operation than you would of Eric Bailly’s fitness or Paul Pogba’s form.
So it is what it is, and in this strangest of all seasons, we find ourselves wondering ‘what if’ we win at Anfield and go six points clear? Is that the time to say we’re actually contenders?
I would prefer – for the sanity of us all – to balance those expectations and say to anyone reading this that United are still hugely overachieving. That’s not to say a defeat to Liverpool wouldn’t be upsetting, it always is when it happens, as it is for them when we inflict defeat. But one or two or three games without a win – or a run of form taken from any other thirty six day period in the season so far – shouldn’t be viewed as a disaster or a capitulation.
Because, in spite of all of that reservation I have written with some emphasis above, Manchester United are still in the strongest position they have been, by a considerable distance, since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Solskjaer has done a remarkable job to navigate the disappointment of the transfer window and to find a consistency and stability in a squad that was lacking those two qualities. After all, these are qualities which can not be bought, and it is a huge credit to a manager whose credentials have been questioned time and again.
That will remain the case come what may on Sunday, and come what may this season. We can still pre-empt the worst case scenario and observe them as lessons which are positive – if Bailly does break down, it’s still strong evidence for signing that defender in the summer.
Then again, preaching for patience and reason from the modern football fan is like pissing in the wind; so maybe it’s time to just indulge in the hysteria. If a week or 36 days is a long time in football, so too is ninety minutes at Anfield for Manchester United.
Let’s just hope that on Monday morning we’re all hysterical for the right reasons.
Whatever the result, I’ll still feel that a positive season is getting in the top four. If we win, though, I might just allow myself to dream. What’s the point if we don’t? I just won’t be quick to condemn the manager if we don’t get there.