Manchester United in first place at least since the last title
In a way, it was Manchester United’s latest path to break a milestone for Manchester United. With a narrow, unattractive 1-0 win at Burnley on a Tuesday in an empty stadium.
By collecting points, United prevailed in the Premier League ahead of Liverpool and took first place in the table for the first time since 2012/13. This was the last time United won the league, a 13th title in 21 seasons. That was Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season in charge. That was before it all collapsed and the results fell apart, when the club fell through the table in a little over five years and went through five managers.
Now, after nearly eight years in the wild, United are back on top in the second half of the campaign. At least it will be until Sunday when it goes head to head against Liverpool. A Liverpool win would put the Reds back in first place due to the goal difference.
But while United’s title prospects are still a little in doubt, that climb – thanks to nine wins in an unbeaten eleven-game run that lifted him off 15th after a difficult start – is for the conditions in which it occurred , remarkable. This is an unusual season in almost every way, but some of the specific features of this race to catch up and Tuesday’s win reflect that reality.
The oddity of United’s success stems from an unbeaten away record of seven wins in eight games compared to a home record for pedestrians. The lack of fans here may be a factor that negates some of the home advantage, but then many players swear up and down that the atmosphere in a stadium doesn’t often affect them much.
In addition, everything happened under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the former interim manager who was so often on the brink of being fired. The Norwegian retains a worse share of the profits than his sacked predecessor Jose Mourinho and after two years and changes a recognizable philosophy has yet to be put in place. Nor has he figured out how to prevent the long streaks and fainting spells his team is exposed to.
But here it is. Here you are. On top. In spite of everything.
With that in mind, it was fitting that Paul Pogba scored the winning goal. For a long time he was a figurehead for the dysfunction. The World Cup winner was the embodiment of a team that was spent and spent and spent on any talented player who could be made to join an increasingly incoherent club without ever getting better. It was bought for a world record transfer fee and, while leading in all sorts of meaningful statistics in its early years, viewed as a failure or something like that. He spent much of last season languishing on the sidelines from injury and rumors swirled that he would run out of time for a summer move to Real Madrid that never occurred.
Pogba has restored his influence and dominance in some games. And his volley, deflected by two defenders before slipping into the net through Nick Pope’s legs, felt like a piece on his detour with the club.
By then, Edinson Cavani had crashed when he cleared through, but Burnley was spared a red card for a foul by Luke Shaw early in the game. And Harry Maguire had an opening goal for United after a great header that wasn’t allowed for climbing onto Eric Pieters’ back – a tough decision.
Even so, United remains a club that feels both competent and kind of messed up. With all the talent that has been put together so expensively, the connective tissue is porous. There are a lot of very good players who don’t necessarily complement each other and some days they figure out how to play together and some days they don’t.
There have been enough of these days when things snap into place for United lately to reclaim some of its old glory. At this point it should be noted that United often did not look entirely imperial in all of these title winning seasons. And it’s true that it doesn’t take as much as it usually does to win the title this pandemic-stricken season.
After the final whistle, there were many high fives and hugs and smiles among the United players and staff. They are not back to their best or the best they can, but these are just opinions. The only goal is for United to be in first place with almost half the season played.
And if nothing else, the Red Devils are back in conversation.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a columnist at Emox News and a lecturer in sports communications at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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