Rise of the Red Devils
All of a sudden, Manchester United looks like a team that belongs to the top and is in the hunt for the title — a resurgence!
There was once a time when Sir Alex Ferguson's team dominated world football. But since his retirement, both the fate and fortune of the team changed. If one were to argue that Manchester United will claim the top spot going halfway into the league, not many would have believed though they finished third last season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær's team didn't have a great start to the 2020-21 season. A delayed start to the season for United didn't yield the result they expected. Crystal Palace hammered them 3-1 in their own den — at Old Trafford! Playing Brighton the next game, things did look gloom until Bruno Fernandes converted a penalty in the dying seconds. Was that the moment that would lift them? NO! 'Motivation', 'determination' and all other 'tions' they had, were crushed as their former gaffer, José Mourinho's team inflicted a 1-6 defeat. The next three games against Newcastle United, Chelsea and Arsenal resulted in a win, a draw and a loss respectively.
With six games into the season, United had seven points and sat in the 15th position. And then began the turnaround. 13 undefeated games! More importantly, they have managed to play out Manchester City, Leicester City and Liverpool (the other three teams in the race for the top spot) for draws. Can Manchester United win it this season? Wayne Rooney feels they can, and why not if they can extend their mojo and also not lose the Manchester derby at Emirates.
What has changed?
"One of the strengths we have is we have a deep squad, strength in depth", said the gaffer after the victory against Fulham. And very rightly, at the moment he has some of the best-attacking options at the disposal. The inclusion of Edinson Cavani did trigger many discussions as 'a panic buy', but the 33-year-old has given them an edge to create more opportunities in the final third and now looks like a 'Solskjær masterstroke'. The options are so many, that their prime forward, Marcus Rashford, started the last game on the bench and more importantly at a time when they were desperate for a win given the title race on the line.
Also, how could you not talk about Bruno Fernandes? He has probably been the biggest success for the men in red in the last 18 months or so. The Portuguese midfielder has not just been a creator but has also accounted for 19 goals across all tournaments for United. The 'creative' burden has been on Fernandez for a long time, but Paul Pogba too has stepped up in their quest for the title and has even sidelined discussions of his contract ending next season.
What needs to change?
Against Fulham, Cavani has shown the world that he can still score great yet simple goals and also press the opposition's defence even at 33 and United looked more threatening going forward. Since he joined United, this was his only fourth start in Premier League. This has to change. With Cavani as the centre forward, it will allow Solskjær to switch Rashford and Martial.
The team is now in a state when it can regroup at any given time in the course of a match, but conceding early goals has been been a problem. They did manage six games without conceding early, but Ademola Lookman's goal in the fifth minute during the last game reminded them that they need to stop conceding 'early' goals.
Can they win the title?
Earlier last season, when I spoke to Ronny Johnsen (Solskjær's teammate at United and part of the treble-winning team), he emphasised that United at that point were in a 'rebuilding phase' and predicted that United would win the 2020-21 season. So far, Ronny's prophecy looks intact and United are all set to win their 14th Premier League title. What lies between is Guardiola's men who too seems hungry after having lost the title race to Liverpool last season.
Nonetheless, we are up for a thrilling second half of this season! May the best team win the league. Not Liverpool for sure.