SportsSolskjaer Weathers The Storm To The Top, But Half The Battle Remains

Solskjaer Weathers The Storm To The Top, But Half The Battle Remains


SAN FRANCISCO, January 02, (THEWILL) – There was a time this season when Norwegian manager for English Premier League side Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was on the verge of being out of job. Two months into the season and United sat 14th from the top desperate to find new ways to improve ball circulation, usage of width, movement in advanced areas and their direct passing.

In Europe, the Red Devils followed victories over Parisian giants, last season’s Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain and semi-finalists RB Leipzig, with an embarrassing defeat to Champions League debutantes İstanbul Başakşehir. That result played a crucial role in their unenviable and subsequent drop from the UCL to the UEFA Europa League.

Many Old Trafford fans found that the general lacklustre performance of their quality-packed squad a tough pill to swallow and the calls for a change of managerial input gained momentum. The onus was on the Solskjaer to tweak his structure to fix the issues plaguing the side and quickly if he was to save his job. The out-of-work Argentine Mauricio Pochettino was already being considered in his place.

Then, came the disappointing loss to Arsenal at Old Trafford. The performance of the team did not inspire confidence as a long-held record against one of the traditional Big Six sides was in tatters at the once dreaded “Theatre of Dreams”. The United faithfuls could not bear the agony of seeing their stomping grounds so desecrated and Solskjaer was only saved by the support of United’s Executive Chairman Bob Woodward who kept faith with him.

Now, the Norwegian is repaying that confidence. At the start of last year, the Red Devils were a staggering 24 points away from the eventual champions. Two months and 10 games ago, when Arsenal inflicted the last league defeat on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, Man U was nine points adrift of the champions.

However, this year, after a string of unbeaten games, penalty decisions and last minute wins, United have come level on points with last season’s champions Liverpool at the summit of English football, with the same number of games played. They have fought resolutely to come this far, climbing up the table game after game with grit, determination, preparation and, often, good fortune.

That was evidenced in Friday’s game against Aston Villa. For the second successive game, United capitalised on other teams dropping points around them to keep their climb unimpeded. This was not the case last season when they frequently faltered in this position and, as a result, never got near to a title race.

Friday’s victory was another hard fought win. Beating a much-improved Villa was always going to be an uphill task and with the win United’s kept up their current unbeaten run in the Premier League extended to 10 games. Of those, eight have been victories.

When Liverpool was only able to take one point against Newcastle, United were handed the opportunity to wipe out what was left of Liverpool’s lead at the top. However, a combination of wasteful finishing and some brilliant saves by Martinez meant they were again reliant on the fortune of a penalty to take the game.

It is the 27th Premier League penalty United have been awarded since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first game in charge. It is seven more than any other team in the top flight. And, like many others before this, it was key to giving Man U the victory over their opponent which may not have been without it.

There is still a lot that can change in the 22 games remaining in this arduous season. It would, therefore, be naïve to declare that United’s recent ascension will cause some sleepless nights at Liverpool. What cannot be denied, though, is that by catching up with Liverpool at the top, United have added another fascinating element to the race for the title. And made the unpredictable season a lot more attractive to follow.

It will not be the first nor the last that Liverpool will welcome company at the top of the EPL table this season. At different times, Tottenham, Chelsea and Southampton have all enjoyed spells at the summit, however ephemeral. All have been seen off, sometimes after only a few hours. But, this time, it feels different. It has a certain quality to it that does not look like it will be so easy to change quickly.

United have positioned themselves squarely on Liverpool’s heels and breathing down the necks of the men from Anfield who strolled imperiously to the title last season. How Liverpool responds to a team whose record of premiership titles they are looking to equal at the end of this season will be clearer as the season progresses and based on United’s ability to sustain their form.

It has been a tough time for the Old Trafford club in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, but the Red Devils now look ready to mix it with the very best in English football once again and must now be considered genuine title contenders. One reason why that is the case at present is the January signing of Portuguese midfielder and United’s talisman Bruno Fernandes, who has really become one of the biggest game changers of 2020.

The 26-year-old has reinvigorated the Red Devils and has been a consistent source of world-class creativity, which had been lacking since the Sir Alex Ferguson era. Between his signing and now, he has racked up a whopping total of 14 goals and nine assists in just 23 outings. Such performances have put him in the conversation to be regarded as the best the Premier League has to offer in that midfield position.

Fernandes has done much to not only be compared with Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne, who won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award at the end of the 2019/2020 season, but is beginning to have watchers regarded him as the division’s best.

As has often been the case, Fernandes was the match-winner on Friday again. In 30 Premier League appearances since his arrival last January, the Portuguese has transformed United’s fortunes. His penalty on Friday was the Portuguese’s 33rd goal involvement in that span of time.

True to form, the United squad has a depth few can match. And, in this of all seasons, that could prove vital. That has now created the mouth-watering prospect of a rare meeting between England’s two biggest and most successful clubs at Anfield on Sunday, January 17, with both dreaming of title glory.

No one will conclude that United are a finished article and that they have filled all the cracks that cost them games. But, the doubts that have persisted for so long are starting to disappear. They are set to visit Anfield as something close to equals as the table bears evidence and that shows United are getting there.

Their equalling Liverpool’s top position after everything they have been through means the second half of the season is set up nicely and that Premier League match at Anfield on the 17th feels huge. EPL fans are in for a treat and Man U supporters can begin to dream again.


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