The half-way point of the 2020/21 Premier League season has arrived and it has been another unforgettable season full of ups and downs so far. It has been a season like no other as the footballing world continues to deal with the COVID-19 global pandemic which has wreaked havoc across the globe.
Premier League clubs have had to deal with huge financial repercussions with significant losses occurring due to having no crowds in attendance for Premier League matches for the past 10 months. The absence of fans attending matches has caused the home/away advantage for teams to become non-existent, which has led to some dramatic and unpredictable results during the first half of the season.
The unpredictable nature of the Premier League this season has coincided with the leaders having the lowest point tally at the half-way stage of the season for the past decade. The “Big Six” have also taken points from each other this season which has resulted in the tightest title race in recent years with at least four teams (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Leicester City) challenging for the Premier League. Manchester United currently lead the table at the half-way stage of the season with 40 points, mounting an unlikely title challenge with Manchester City, Liverpool and Leicester City also in contention.
The Red Devils were going into the new season with some positive momentum after their excellent finish to last season and the return of Champions League football to Old Trafford. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought in some excellent new additions to his squad with exciting Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek from Ajax, left back Alex Telles from FC Porto and veteran striker Edison Cavani joining the club on a Bosman. However, the positive momentum at Old Trafford quickly turned negative for a number of reasons. We got off to a difficult start due to a number of issues caused by the quick turnaround of four weeks between last season and this season.
The short turnaround period, due to the 2019/20 season finishing later than usual, meant United struggled to get a full pre-season to prepare adequately for the new season. The Red Devils only had one pre-season friendly against Aston Villa in preparation for the new season whilst a number of key players were returning from holiday and self-quarantining upon returning to the UK. To make matters worse, club captain Harry Maguire was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons when he got arrested whilst holidaying in the Greek Island of Mykonos. United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United publicly backed the club captain and he was released pending an investigation the following day. Upon his return to Manchester, Solskjaer sat down with the club captain and explained to him the expectations of the club.
The Red Devils began the new season with a disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace in the Premier League opener but bounced back with consecutive wins over Luton and Brighton twice. Solskjaer and United suffered their heaviest defeat of the season as Spurs demolished the Red Devils 6-1 at Old Trafford in the Premier League in a result that sparked outrage amongst Manchester United fans. Solskjaer has suffered a few low points this season with the exit from the group stages of the Champions League after the defeat to RB Leipzig the lowest point. The exit from the Champions’ League group stage for United is much more disappointing considering United topped the group after impressive victories over group favourites Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig.
There have been a few disappointing performances from United this season but the Red Devils are finally showing consistency under Solskjaer’s guidance. Despite the slow start to the season United turned their form around and came away with seven wins in their next 10 games. Since the 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal on the 1st of November the Red Devils have been the in-form team in the Premier League and slowly started to the climb the league table. United are unbeaten in their last 12 Premier League matches winning 9 and drawing 3 as they top the table in January for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s title winning team in 2013. An impressive draw at Anfield and hard fought win over Scott Parker’s plucky Fulham last week means Solskjaer’s side have gone an entire year unbeaten away from home in the Premier League. The Norwegian has turned United into the away day specialists with his side winning 14 and drawing 3 of their last 17 Premier League fixtures since the defeat to Liverpool at Anfield last January.
United’s away form has been a major improvement under manager Solskjaer and is one of the reasons why the Red Devils are currently top of the Premier League. The overall improvement in Manchester United was apparent in last Sunday’s performance against defending Champions Liverpool in the Premier League in which the Red Devils had the better opportunities to win the game. United continued their impressive form with a hard fought 3-2 win over Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup at Old Trafford to progress to the next round.
The FA Cup will provide Ole Gunnar Solskaer and his United side the perfect opportunity challenge for a trophy as the Norwegian aims to win his first trophy at the club. The victory over Liverpool has shown the significant improvement in this United squad throughout the season under the guidance of Solskjaer which has seen the Red Devils become a genuine title contender. Bruno Fernandes continues to prove that he may be the best United signing in the past 20 years as his performances and goals suggest. Fernandes has an incredible 16 goals in 29 appearances so far this season and if the Red Devils are going to win silverware this season the Portuguese maestro will be pivotal to any success. Solskjaer’s impressive man management has seen the re-emergence of Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba who are currently playing their best football since they’ve arrived to the club. Shaw, in particular, has been exceptional at left back this season and has benefited from the added competition of new signing Alex Telles at left back. Meanwhile, Paul Pogba has transformed into a new player since his agent’s unhelpful comments prior to the RB Leipzig. Solskjaer quietly dropped the French man from his squad before slowly reintegrating him back into the starting X1 mainly deploying him in a midfield diamond on the left flank. Pogba has been reinvigorated this season under Solskjaer’s management and recently scored two game winning screamers against Burnley and Fulham as the Red Devils set the pace at the top of the Premier League. He is finally starting to show consistency with maturing performances and his form will be instrumental if United are to win trophies this season.
There has been huge progress within Old Trafford in the past 365 days which is reflected by United’s current league position. The overall improvement of squad depth, development of exciting young players, integrating academy prospects into the first team and getting rid of fringe players from the squad has turned the Red Devils into potential title challengers. The positive results in recent weeks keeps Manchester United top of the table in January with United fans believing for the first time in eight years a title challenge may be on the cards. This time last year the defeat to Liverpool at Anfield and Burnley was the lowest point of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure. However, a year on and Manchester United are beginning to emerge from the darkness under the guidance of the ‘Baby Faced Assassin’ and a Premier League trophy could be within reach.