IT is never a wise idea to claim that a team resides in a false league position.
For one thing it contravenes one of the most established football cliches going which states categorically that the league doesn’t lie. For another, it leaves the claimant open to all manner of accusations, ranging from being bitter and biased to having an actual agenda against the club in question.
Yet in the case of Manchester United perhaps an exception can be made and that’s because even their own fans often query their lofty location.
“How are we second?” they ask, incredulously on social media as plenty of others share their disbelief.
“How are they second?” rival fans similarly inquire. The wording is the same, but the tone is so very different.
In the first instance there is an inferred chuckle and shake of the head but for the rest of us whimsy takes a back seat because a serious implication is attached. That is, if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, that is rife with flaws and who have routinely been underwhelming this term, are statistically the ‘best of the rest’ in 2020/21 behind a formidable City creation then just how poor is the standard of the Premier League right now?
Ole outers last season when Ole went from finishing 6th with 66 points to finishing 3rd with 66 points:
“Where’s the progress?”
Ole outers this season when United are in 2nd 14 points better off than at this stage last season with 60 points:
“Where’s the progress?” pic.twitter.com/UFv1evprfk
— Colin MUFC (@ColinMufc) April 6, 2021
Harsh? Very possibly, so let’s first balance out the negativity by detailing precisely why the Reds are 14 points better off than at this stage last season.
United are second because they have scored an average of 1.9 goals per game, a consequence of carving out 56 big chances this term, the third most in the top-flight. In Bruno Fernandes they boast a play-maker destined to hoover up individual awards in the weeks to come, with the Portuguese maestro directly responsible for 45.6% of their league goals.
Yet the much-repeated charge that Solskjaer’s men are too reliant on their chief orchestrator is wide of the mark. In actual fact, it is admirable how they have shared around their bounty with 13 different players getting on the score-sheet. Six have come from defenders. Seven from central midfield.
Furthermore, this Sunday, United head to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium looking to extend on a highly impressive away record that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It began with a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge in mid-February 2020 and currently stands at 22 games unbeaten and if this hints strongly at mental fortitude within the camp it’s confirmed by their present status as the Premier League’s comeback kings. Manchester United have won a staggering 25 points from losing positions this season and should they concede first against Spurs but ultimately prevail they will match a long-standing league record for turning results around.
All of which suggests that Solskjaer’s side have been largely excellent this season. No, that’s not strictly fair. It proves they have been largely excellent.
Bruno Fernandes is the only Midfielder in the Europe’s top five leagues who has +10 goals & +10 assists. pic.twitter.com/ymmXv6X1yS
— BrunoXtra™ (@FernandesZone) April 4, 2021
Only our eyes disagree. Our eyes tell us that aside from a handful of matches United have started slovenly, incapable of breaking down low blocks with predictable movement off the ball and the safe option routinely taken. On six occasions they have lulled us to sleep eking out 0-0 stalemates and this has led to several former Reds – not least Roy Keane and Gary Neville – flat-out calling them boring. They are still to solve the Pogba puzzle and that’s a situation exacerbated by having a midfield too narrow that is set up to negate rather than create. At the back meanwhile calamity is only ever a good set-piece away.
Lastly, let’s flip that earlier praise. Because while their resolve is undoubtedly impressive turning so many early concessions into three points, is that truly a trademark of an elite team? Elite teams – even average, well prepared teams – typically don’t go behind 12 times, 11 in the first half, thus necessitating dramatic fightbacks.
16/25 for both teams to score is short-priced but tempting nonetheless. For all their troubles Tottenham have only failed to score six times this season.
All things considered then, United have been a contradictory and confusing outfit throughout this campaign, with circumstantial evidence buffering uncomfortably against opposing data, and there is an irony here because on taking charge Solskjaer said time and again that he wanted to reinstall a clear identity at the club. Instead, he has a side that has taken four points off City this season and scored only eight goals fewer yet appear distinctly ordinary for the most part; uninspired. Instead, he has a team that makes very little sense.
Apart perhaps from this simple truth: that they are a team of two halves, with significant improvements usually seen in the second period and this neatly takes us to this weekend’s clash against Spurs who are their polar opposite.
For Jose Mourinho's struggling side, who are edging ever closer to crisis having lost eight in their last 20 Premier League fixtures, have led 21 times this term and gone on to drop points in a third of them. Crucially they have relinquished 11 points from goals conceded in the final 10 minutes.
When it’s noted that the visitors have scored an astonishing 27% of their goals this season across all comps after the 80th minute then we know what to do, don’t we. This is Jekyll and Hyde encountering Hyde and Jekyll. Place your bets accordingly.
A generous 24/1 is available for Tottenham/Manchester United in the Half Time/Full Time market. Get on it.