On New Year’s Day 2020, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – in a manner many of us would become accustomed to in a year like no other – cut a lonely and isolated figure.
United subsided to a miserable 2-0 defeat in the fact of an Arsenal onslaught inspired by Mikel Arteta – the man who once laid cones out for Pep Guardiola – as the suave Spaniard, a matter of weeks into the job, outclassed a side led by a manager beginning his second year at the wheel.
Amidst Manchester United’s harshest winter you’d have been hard pressed to foresee a scenario in which Solskjaer would still be at the wheel for the coming of 2021. Three weeks after that debacle in north London, the cacophony of discontent reached a crescendo as a pre-Fernandes United went down to Burnley on a chastening night at Old Trafford. It seemed like the end of yet another Old Trafford era.
It was perhaps fitting, as the world sank into a soporific slumber amidst the worst health crisis of our generation, that the sleeping giant of Manchester United finally began to come alive.
One year on, and just as life has changed beyond all recognition in the face of a pandemic for the ages, so too have Solskjaer’s reborn and revitalised Manchester United side. United and their manager, so often derided, ridiculed, lambasted and written off, have got themselves into a position of contention, almost un-noticed, creeping under the radar to move level with Liverpool at the halfway point of 2020-21.
For the first time since 2009, the country’s two most glamorous and successful clubs are locked together side by side at the summit of the table, setting up the prospect of one almighty ding-dong at Anfield in just over a fortnight – when both can dream of the glory that awaits.
It’s a strange feeling being a United fan right now. We need to take this one game at a time, keeping winning and ticking the games off and not think too far ahead. But yet, deep within you, somewhere in your bones, lies that feeling that used to be radioactive but has become all too dormant. I don’t know about you but for the first time in a long, long time, maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to believe. I’m starting to believe, daring to dream, that this Manchester United side – under a club legend and one of our own – are going to make it 21 in 2021. I don’t want to get ahead of myself but I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say – can you really blame me? The well has been dry amidst a drought that has lasted almost a decade now so why shouldn’t I get a tad excited?
As United held off an in-form Villa to win again and go joint top, one single moment summed up the sense that Solskjaer is building something special. The reaction to Eric Bailly’s totemic, colossal, match-winning block from Keinan Davis at the death told you everything. As the Ivorian was mobbed by his exultant team-mates, the message was clear: this is a side with an unbreakable spirit and a group of players that look like they’d rather die than let Solskjaer down. Bailly’s heroic intervention prevented a certain Villa equaliser and carried the sense of a potentially monumental season-defining moment. I’ve not seen a single player embraced by an entire squad like that for a very, very long time. As the old adage says, a picture paints a thousand words.
This is now a multi-functional, ever-evolving United side.
Last season, United drew with Wolves twice and also dropped points to Villa at Old Trafford. This time around, the Reds have won ugly against both of those Midlands clubs, and ground out another win over a third, the 1-0 victory against a pre-Allardyce West Brom in November. That in itself is surely evidence of progress. It’s a sign of champions — to win when you’re not playing well? But we have also shown a willingness for the classic, easy-on-the eye dingdong. Leeds turned up to Old Trafford full of vim and vigour, but were blown away to the tune of a 6-2 ultra-attacking masterclass. United can grind you down but can also rip you to pieces. At times it has felt as if this is a side carried by Bruno Fernandes, but now it goes deeper.
Edinson Cavani – another United man widely derided upon his arrival – may have been absent here but has produced vital, under-the-radar contributions. Bailly was United’s standout player on the night, Dan James has come back into form, and David de Gea returned to his ridiculous best against Villa. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial get more criticism than recognition but both have played their part.
Even the board get some kudos here (yes, you read that right, and no I haven’t been drinking). Despite all the evidence seemingly to the contrary, the United hierarchy – the unseen beings lurking in the corridors of power – have stuck by their man, only re-iterating their belief in Ole. Even when the man from Murphy, a chap by the name of Patricio Mochettino, was widely touted as an Old Trafford manager in waiting, the board refused to buckle. For a board notoriously swayed by public perception and emotion, it was a marked change of mindset. Solskjaer was appointed to provide a cultural reset and a cool head amidst the fire of the chaos Jose-Mourinho era.
Of course, United are far from the finished article. The Jadon Sancho saga is likely to rumble on and for Bailly’s brilliance, he’s made of glass and so at least one new centre-back is a must. There are still some existing players in the squad, such as Marcos Rojo, Brandon Williams, Phil and Jesse Lingard, who are surplus to requirements and need to be moved on.
But the very fact the Reds will go to Anfield on an even keel with a side that finished 33 points ahead only a few months ago, is proof – if it were needed – that this a squad on an upward trajectory.
Read more: The duality of Manchester United