Manchester United start 2021 breathing down Liverpool’s neck in what could easily develop into a classic Premier League title race.
Following a shaky opening to the season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team are hitting their stride and just about keeping pace with the reigning champions.
The meeting of the top two at Anfield on January 17 will tell us much more about whether United can genuinely stay the course but they’re undoubtedly better placed than in most recent seasons.
Paul Pogba (right) celebrates with Marcus Rashford after the striker’s late winner on Tuesday
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United side have emerged as potential title challengers to Liverpool
Having not won the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, a sustained title bid would suggest a possible return to former glories at Old Trafford.
But do Solskjaer’s team actually have what it takes to beat Liverpool and everyone else? Here’s five reasons why they can win the title and five reasons why they’ll fall short.
WHY THEY CAN WIN THE TITLE
Solskjaer’s tenure as United manager appeared to be heading nowhere last January but the decision to sign Bruno Fernandes has proved transformative to the club’s fortunes.
The Portuguese playmaker has scored 26 goals and contributed 17 assists in 45 matches for United since his debut on February 1.
In that time, no Premier League player has been involved in more goals or chipped in with more assists. Only Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah has scored more league goals.
Bruno Fernandes has been absolutely majestic to United since he arrived at the club in January
Sights like this – Fernandes scoring at Leicester on Boxing Day – have become familiar ones
His creative brilliance and assured finishing have elevated United from a side struggling to make the top six to one that could go all the way and even at the full price of £67million he could prove a snip.
United’s title-winning teams under Ferguson typically had a game-changed, whether it be Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney – a player that could conjure up a bit of magic when it was most needed.
Fernandes offers that in Solskjaer’s team now and is unquestionably one of the finest players currently in the Premier League. Could he offer the x-factor that is required to win titles?
On paper at the very least, United have a strikeforce that measures up to any in the Premier League.
With Fernandes supporting the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani, they certainly boast the firepower to win the vast majority of the games they play.
We all know that United are especially devastating on the counter-attack with the speed of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood tailor-made for Solskjaer’s game plan.
Summer signing Edinson Cavani has certainly added a fresh dynamic to United’s front line
Rashford celebrates scoring his 94th-minute winner against Wolves on Tuesday night
The challenge is getting them all performing to their highest level in tandem. While Fernandes and Rashford – who both have 14 goals across all competitions this season – are excelling on a consistent basis, Martial (four goals) and Greenwood (three) are not at the moment.
Fortunately for United, Cavani has come in and picked up some of the slack. Given more of an opportunity in recent weeks, he has reminded everyone of his lethal finishing with important goals at Southampton and in the Carabao Cup quarter-final at Everton.
Given that the fixtures will come thick and fast during the second-half of the season, Solskjaer will need all his strikers to be fully firing to claim the first silverware of his tenure.
IMPROVING AT THE BACK
The early weeks of the season certainly didn’t bode well for United. They were leaking goals left, right and centre – notably the six that Tottenham stuffed past them at Old Trafford.
Harry Maguire looked distracted and neither Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw nor Eric Bailly looked remotely near United calibre.
However, as the season has pushed on, United have gradually started to look more organised and resolute in defence. That’s not to say they’re capable of keeping clean sheets in every match, but they have improved.
Harry Maguire (left) and Luke Shaw have improved dramatically from early season wobbles
Goalkeeper David de Gea celebrates Rashford’s winner to pick up three crucial points
Maguire, who has played more minutes this calendar year than any professional in world football, has rediscovered much of his poise after that troubled summer.
Shaw has embraced the competition at left-back from summer arrival Alex Telles and Aaron Wan-Bissaka often looks a class act on the other side.
The much-maligned goalkeeper David de Gea seems to have responded to the return of Dean Henderson and has cut out the errors that led to question marks last season.
United’s back line remains far from the best in the division but it’s getting better. They can’t allow the kind of sloppiness seen in, say, the Champions League games away to Istanbul Basaksehir and RB Leipzig, to derail their title bid.
NEVER-SAY-DIE SPIRIT IS BACK
Ferguson’s title-winning teams were at their most thrilling when fighting back from a deficit in games. Solskjaer’s side has rediscovered some of that old never-say-die spirit.
The come-from-behind wins against Southampton, West Ham, Everton and Sheffield United in recent weeks certainly want for entertainment and it’s on such occasions that delirious crowds really are missed.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side made an art form out of improbable comebacks and late winners
Edinson Cavani was United’s stoppage time matchwinner against Southampton last month
United turned late goals and comebacks into an art form for years and years and while ideally you’d never fall behind in the first place, at least they have what it takes to fight back.
It was in evidence on Tuesday night as Rashford scored a 94th-minute winner to earn three priceless points against Wolves at Old Trafford.
It was United’s latest winner at home in the league since September 2009, when Michael Owen scored in a 4-3 win over Manchester City, as their persistence eventually paid off.
This quality will no doubt come in very handy during the home stretch if they’re still in the running for the title.
TITLE RACE IS WIDE OPEN
What is for certain is that no one team is going to run away with the title from here in the manner Liverpool did last season.
Too many teams towards the top end of the table are dropping too many points for that. The Christmas fixtures saw Liverpool held at home by West Brom, Leicester and United share the spoils, while Chelsea lost to Arsenal.
No one team appears to have the winning consistency that Liverpool found last season to make a break for it.
Liverpool surprisingly dropped points in a 1-1 home draw against West Brom on Sunday
The added chaos factor brought about by a cramped fixture list, the potential for more Covid-related postponements, the impact of these on player form and fitness and the challenge of fighting on multiple fronts in the new year means it’s anyone’s guess who will lift the trophy in May.
It’s an unpredictability that allows Everton and Aston Villa to punch above their weight this season, while you’d still expect to see more from Man City and a second wind from Chelsea and Tottenham.
In such a climate, any team that can maybe snatch a couple of important wins here and there, or string just two or three wins together, may end up champions.
WHY THEY CAN’T WIN THE TITLE
LIVERPOOL ARE STRONGER
The obvious hurdle to United winning the Premier League is the fact Liverpool still look far stronger.
The reigning champions have still lost just the once in the league this season and are unbeaten since the start of October. And all this in the absence of influential defender Virgil van Dijk and other key defensive personnel.
Jurgen Klopp’s side may have unexpectedly dropped points against West Brom on Sunday and at Fulham a couple of weeks back but they have kicked on impressively amid various distractions this season.
Liverpool won the Premier League last season and are still favourites to retain their title
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
January 1 Aston Villa (H)
January 6 Manchester City (H)
Carabao Cup semi-final
January 9 Watford (H)
FA Cup third round
January 17 Liverpool (A)
January 20 Fulham (A)
The hunger to retain their title is evident and the knowhow to get themselves over the line when the time comes in April and May is fresher in the minds of Liverpool players than anyone else.
Klopp successfully defended the Bundesliga title with Borussia Dortmund nearly a decade ago and he will known precisely the right things to say and do to keep his team on track.
While not quite scaling the heights of their record-breaking 2019-20, Liverpool have been impressively relentless in the opening half of the season and are very much the team to beat.
BOGGED DOWN BY THE EUROPA LEAGUE
United’s early exit from the Champions League, when they looked in control of their destiny for most of the group stage, remains the low point of their season to date.
A third place finish behind Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig in their group saw them claim the dubious consolation prize of Europa League football in the new year.
Spanish club Real Sociedad await them in the last-32 in February, a tricky draw plus also two additional fixtures to their workload had they remained in the Champions League.
Solskjaer will want United to go deep in the Europa League – they reached the semi-finals last season, losing to Sevilla – but the fixture pile-up will certainly stretch his squad, especially if they progress in the FA Cup as well.
United’s miserable Champions League exit against Leipzig was the low point of the season
Playing Thursday-Sunday every week isn’t ideal, not to mention the travelling involved, and it will be tricky to keep the squad fresh for the league games that really matter.
While winning any piece of silverware is significant, there may come a point later in the season when the Europa League has to be effectively sacrificed to keep the key players fit and fresh for a true title tilt.
TOO RELIANT ON FERNANDES?
The flip side of the brilliance shown by Fernandes is the risk that United become too dependent on him to deliver them the results they need.
It’s inevitable that their talisman will suffer a drop off in form, fatigue or an injury at some stage and you do wonder if Solskjaer has a plan B for this eventuality.
Fernandes has started all but one of United’s 15 Premier League games so far and there won’t be much opportunity for respite between now and the end of the season.
There’s a danger that an over-reliance on Fernandes will cause him to burn out
When your No 10 has scored just as many goals as your main striker, it’s easy to make a case that you’re relying too much on them.
The good news is that when United do suffer setbacks, others usually step up to the mark. For instance, when Rashford suffered a back injury at the beginning of the year, Martial enjoyed some of his best scoring form.
Solskjaer may have to be pragmatic and ensure Fernandes starts on the bench or is rested entirely for certain cup games and perhaps all of the Europa League.
By doing that, United will prove to themselves and everyone else they can win in his absence.
The midfield issues caused by the summer signing of Donny van de Beek and the challenge of shoehorning him in alongside Paul Pogba, Fernandes and the others do seem to have eased of late.
Van de Beek has yet to convince anyone fully of his qualities but has done well enough, while Pogba seems to have settled down following the speculation over his future ignited by his agent Mino Raiola.
The likes of Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic have all done well when given their opportunity to offer United a solid midfield foundation.
The jury remains out on summer signing Donny van de Beek (left) in a confused midfield
Scott McTominay is one of the bright points at United after recent performances in midfield
But the midfield nonetheless presented Solskjaer with an unexpected headache that caused issues earlier in the season when both Pogba and Van de Beek wanted to play where Fernandes plays and nobody wanted to do the deep-lying donkey work.
The sheer weight of fixtures means they will all get their chance, however, and it will be encouraging for Solskjaer to see his midfield looking sharper.
ARE THEY CONSISTENT ENOUGH?
The main criticism levelled at United this season has been that of inconsistency. A Jekyll and Hyde team in their performances, you never quite knew which United would show up.
A six-match unbeaten run, including four wins, suggests that maybe those days are now behind them.
It is their best sequence of results all season but the feeling persists that the next slump is only just around the corner.
Manchester United’s visit to Liverpool next month will tell us more about their title credentials
Most of Solskjaer’s reign, certainly since he became permanent manager rather than interim, has been two steps forward, one back.
Recent title winners Liverpool and Man City have set new standards in what it means to be consistent. That is what United will need to strive for as they aim to wrestle back the crown.