Wait A Second, Are Manchester United Actually An EPL Title Threat?
Manchester United’s highly encouraging, potentially title-challenging start to the EPL season has ushered in a decidedly nostalgic feel to the new year.
While many United die-hards have kept the flame burning through their last seven seasons of domestic and continental futility, others have had to dig deep into their wardrobes, rediscovering their old Sharp jerseys while performing Eric Cantona-esque poses into the bathroom mirror.
While the season hasn’t yet reached the half-way point, the Red Devils are presently sharing the top of the table with Liverpool while holding a game in hand on their great rivals.
They’re unbeaten in ten league games, have the league’s second most potent attack, and in Bruno Fernandes, host the current PFA Player of the Year favourite- an award the club hasn’t celebrated since Wayne Rooney in 2010.
For a club who’s been more than 30-points adrift from the eventual champs over each of the last two seasons, their remarkable form reversal represents the most engrossing story of this young season.
Just how have they got here, can they indeed remain in the hunt, while what are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of a 21st domestic crown?
A Devilish Resurrection
There’s no single factor that’s propelled United’s shock start to the new season, yet there’s simply no ignoring the role Bruno Fernandes has played.
Since joining United from Sporting Lisbon in January last year, the Portuguese star has helped alleviate so much of the fear and loathing which had engulfed Old Trafford. This season, only Tottenham's Harry Kane (21) has produced more combined goals and assists than Fernandes (18) while only Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish (3.7) is dialling up more key passes per game.
Fernandes’ ability to control the middle of the park has ushered in a more settled and creative Paul Pogba of late, while also allowing Marcus Rashford to concentrate solely on what he does best, which is belting goals, with the young Mancunian netting 5 times in his last 7 EPL appearances.
In fitting with the nostalgic theme, United have also re-discovered their ‘Fergie Time’ magic, so far scoring 10 times in the last 15 minutes of matches, while also boasting a +5 goal differential in that time period. While manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been under immense pressure throughout his tenure, his calmness, focus and preparation is clearly filtering down to his players.
A further factor contributing to Untied’s impressive start is its newfound ability to take their show on the road. So far, they’re the EPL’s only undefeated team away from home, winning 6 of its 7 matches and scoring a league-high 21 goals. While they haven’t yet had to travel to the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City, or even Tottenham or Chelsea, they’ve belted top-half table teams such as Everton and West Ham, while they recently pushed 3rd-placed Leicester to a 2-2 draw on Boxing Day.
Staying In The Hunt
While United are currently rolling, delighted to be in the thick of a title-chase, remaining in the fight will require significantly more than they’ve mustered so far.
While Fernandes has dazzled, and Rashford continues his march towards super-stardom, the United rearguard remains problematic, continuing to concede goals at an alarming rate. In fact, for a team in apparent title contention, there’s only 6 teams in the league who’ve surrendered more goals, with the bulk of those outfits in relegation scraps.
A chief United concern actually pertains to one of its most high-profiled and decorated players in David de Gea. Put simply, the Spanish keeper has put together a nightmare of a campaign so far, and of the 19 EPL shot-stoppers to have played at least 10 matches, his whoscored rating of 6.4 places him an alarming 16th. He’s kept just 4 clean sheets this season, while his transfer market value has dipped to 25 million euros, down markedly from the 70 million it peaked at in December of 2018. While it’s reasonable to argue that the likes of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof haven’t exactly been rock solid in front of him, these are the same dance parters he took to the ball last season where he produced a 73.6% save percentage, and which has plunged to a career-low 61.4% this campaign.
While de Gea is one player United would dearly love to see come back to life, United will also have to do a much better job where its overall composure is concerned. Their 52.3% possession figure ranks just 8th in the league, placing a serious strain on the rest of the squad, and ultimately putting the likes of de Gea under immense pressure.
Can They Actually Pull This Off?
While United hanging around the top of the table qualifies for an incredible story, the season is still very young, while there’s of course no guarantee that either their form can be sustained, or that more rounded squads such as Liverpool and Manchester City won’t take off and leave them for dead.
Speaking of Liverpool and City, if United are to stay in the hunt with that decorated duo, they’ll need a hell of a lot more than just Fernandes and Rashford and a good dash of Aaron Wan-Bissaka thrown in. According to whoscored, these are the only three Red Devils with player ratings at 7 or above which works in sharp contrast to Liverpool and City who’ve a combined 14 players who fit that description.
In addition to not packing nearly the same kind of depth as their more accomplished rivals, United’s underlying metrics are also painting a picture which doesn’t foretell a sustained run. Their +9 goal differential places them 7th in the league, while their schedule thus far can reasonably be likened to a powder puff.
United’s January 18th trip to play Liverpool looms as a massive assignment and a litmus test to see just how far they’ve really come, and perhaps how far they’re capable of going. Anfield has been anything but a happy hunting ground for the Red Devils winning just once in their last 11 visits, while scoring just a single goal from its last 5 trips to Merseyside.
If United can indeed go toe to toe with the champs, and perhaps escape with points, then their title challenge will gain more credibility. If they're however summarily dispatched as they’ve so often been, then United will be potentially contemplating another empty season, while those retro jerseys will return to the wardrobe as quickly as they were unearthed.
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