It’s often said that football fans are fickle, but the people who write about the sport might be even more so. Just two weeks ago, when a loss away from hope at RB Leipzig saw Manchester United eliminated from the UEFA Champions League, several journalists declared that time was up at Old Trafford for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After two years in the job, it was felt that he wasn’t making enough progress, the team was too inconsistent, and he stood no chance of bringing any trophies to the club’s success-deprived fans. Two weeks is a very long time in football, and now those same journalists are describing Solksjaer’s Manchester United as title contenders instead.
The reason for this stunning change of heart is the team’s eye-catching 6-2 demolition of Leeds United, which made the rest of the league sit up and take notice. With that victory, the club leapfrogged Tottenham Hotspur and Everton to jump into third place, just five points away from leaders Liverpool with a game in hand. Perhaps more importantly than that, with that victory, Manchester United reminded everybody that they’re a potent attacking threat when they want to be. So far this season the Red Devils have only really showcased that away from home, and even then only after going a goal or two behind. They’d only scored three at home all season going into the Leeds game and looked far happier on their travels than they did in their own stadium. This time the mood was different, and so was the team’s execution of Solskjaer’s instructions.
We shouldn’t gloss over the fact that Leeds United were every bit as bad as Manchester United were good. At the start of the season, many were impressed by Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa’s commitment to all-out attacking football and an entertaining style of play. While the first few teams Leeds came up against didn’t seem to be prepared for it, it’s beginning to look a lot like they’ve been found out. Ten years ago, Blackpool came out of the Championship with an ‘attack at all costs’ mentality, and that also worked for a short while, but they were quickly found out and ended up being relegated on the final day of their solitary season in the top flight. The same fate might easily await Leeds unless they very quickly learn how to defend.
Leeds’ miserable defensive performance aside, Manchester United were imperious. Scott McTominay, who scored twice in the opening three minutes, suddenly appeared to have been transformed into Zinedine Zidane. His connection with Bruno Fernandes in the center of United’s midfield was almost telepathic. Anthony Martial looked sharp and hungry in a way that he hasn’t since the end of last season. Marcus Rashford was a constant nuisance. Even Daniel James, so often written off as little more than a sprinter, caused Leeds headaches. Fans haven’t seen Manchester United play this long for a very long time. Some of them almost didn’t know how to react to it.
A few cynics have already pointed out that this great United performance came without Paul Pogba on the pitch, and it’s impossible not to acknowledge that. For all of his obvious qualities, most recently demonstrated with his exquisite assist for Rashford in the team’s victory away at Sheffield United, United win more without him than they do with him. His agent keeps insisting that the French World Cup winner isn’t happy at Old Trafford and will soon be leaving, but if things continue the way they are, there won’t be many who’ll be sad to see him go. Pogba’s mercurial nature means that while he sometimes makes game-deciding contributions, he also frequently goes missing and causes his team problems. Having Pogba at the club on very high wages is an obvious problem for Solskjaer, and it’s mentioned every time he starts with the midfielder on the bench rather than in the starting eleven. Shipping him out of the club in January would cure that headache.
While we’re talking about lineups, that’s another problem that Solskjaer still hasn’t fully resolved. He doesn’t appear to know his best eleven. Instead, he’s behaving a little like he’s at an online slots website, spinning again and again until he lands upon a winning combination. As you’ll know if you’ve played online slots yourself, that can be an expensive and hazardous habit. While the law of averages says you’ll eventually win something if you’re prepared to be patient and spend a lot of money on whichever casino UK you’re playing, you’ll also lose a lot before you win the jackpot. Even with this recovery, Solskjaer can’t afford many more high-profile losses of the kind he’s had in the past. If he’s a gambler by design, the Norwegian better hope that luck stays with him.
For all the talk of title aspirations, everything could soon change again. Manchester United’s next Premier League fixture is away at high-flying Leicester City on December 26th. Should they win that game, they’ll move to second in the table, potentially just two points behind Liverpool and breathing down the Anfield club’s neck. Lose that game, and they could find themselves outside the top four again. Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers has his own aspirations of finishing within the top three this season, and United aren’t necessarily favorites going into the game. If they truly are title contenders, this is one they’ll need to win. If they lose, they’re more likely to be competing for a Champions League position than contending for the trophy. We’re approaching the halfway stage of the season now, and wins and losses in big games have begun to matter.
Perhaps United winning the league isn’t a realistic prospect. Just the fact that it’s being floated as a possibility is a measure of how far they’ve come since the darkest days of last season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer isn’t the finished article as a coach, and his team isn’t in its final form yet either. What they and their coach badly need is a trophy or two to legitimize them, and so picking up the FA Cup, League Cup, or Europa League might be a more realistic prospect. That would be a step in the right direction and a platform to build upon for next term.