Can Manchester United Win The Premier League?
After years of mediocrity, Manchester United are once again in the title race. The last time they topped the Premier League at this stage of the season, they won their 20th league title in 2012/13. But can the Red Devils really make it 21 in ’21? Brandon Bethune looks at the key factors that could determine whether the former kings can reclaim their throne.
It speaks to the extent of Manchester United’s troubles in recent years that fans are positively buzzing at the mere sight of their side atop the Premier League. United’s presence at the top of the table at this time of year was near enough a certainty for 20 years. Since 2013 however, any glimpse of a title challenge has been a fleeting one. But is there reason to be optimistic that the winds of change are blowing back in favour of the the red side of Manchester?
Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 sent an unpredictable ripple effect through a side that hasn’t since recovered, with the constant shift of managers, players, and mentality unsettling a club that had become used to – and even dependent on – stability. Bar an FA Cup, a Community Shield, and a Europa League triumph here or there, or the odd magic night in the Champions League, there has been no true indication of a return to the glory days of ‘Glory Glory Man Utd’.
On paper, the 2020/2021 Premier League season seemed like it would continue that trend. Champions League qualification had been secured last season, and the January signing of Bruno Fernandes had an undoubtedly great effect on the team’s performances – having earned the most points of any side in the league since his arrival – yet still a lingering cloud of doubt hung over the club’s pursuit of its old success.
The unsuccessful transfer saga surrounding Jason Sancho left the No.7 shirt to be occupied by Edinson Cavani, who some deemed at be a miscalculated panic buy. The securing of Ajax’s Donny Van De Beek was viewed as a solid one, but would he find a place in the team among United’s plethora of attacking midfielders?
Early season results didn’t help matters, with an opening day fiasco against Crystal Palace compounded by THAT defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Just over two months ago, United were 15th in the table after a 1-0 loss at home to Arsenal. To add to the misery, United failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, before losing a fourth straight semi-final, this time against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup.
In the Premier League though, United’s fortunes have changed dramatically in a shift that would have been unforeseeable just two months ago. The Arsenal loss has proved to be their last to date and United have since gone on a stunning 13-game unbeaten run in the league, which was extended with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Turf Moor against Burnley on Tuesday. The win puts them top of the tree, three points clear of arch rivals and champion Liverpool, just days before the pair clash at Anfield on Sunday.
Some may find it amusing that United have only now decided to become coherent just as Liverpool have recaptured their past glory. Seriously though, this remarkable turnaround for United has set in motion the biggest game of the season so far on Sunday, one which may not have immediate title implications, but one which will mean a great deal to both teams, even more than usual considering their storied rivalry.
Liverpool will be eager to return to their best after a string of disappointing results which has reduced their team of untouchable class to simply one of the pack. There would be no better way to show their strength than putting their greatest rivals back in their place. But with United on such a positive run of form, a statement win at Anfield to go six points clear would turn United from less a threat to more of a serious title contender. Even with a win, even with the momentum, would victory a Sunday show that Manchester United can once again become champions of England?
The simple answer, looking at the landscape of the Premier League this season, would be why not. After a few seasons of pure dominance or two horse races, the title race remains unpredictable at this point, largely because the competitors in it are changing by the week.
Tottenham started the season looking like a classic Mourinho machine, but have lost their form since Liverpool brought them crashing back down to Earth. Chelsea too started strongly, but their inability to remain consistent has left Frank Lampard fighting for his job, rather than the title. Man City are only now finding form again after a disappointing start themselves, but do look like they’ve flipped the switch and have become extremely dangerous once again, sitting a point behind Liverpool and four points behind United, with a game in hand over each of the teams above them. Leicester and Everton sit in similar positions, but are also questionable in terms of consistency…and Arsenal also exist.
Much like Liverpool and the rest of the top five or six right now, United are of course not immune to such drastic shifts in form. One must only look to Solskjaer’s arrival as manager in 2018 to see that after a lightening quick start, things went careening downhill just as fast towards the end of that season. But the one thing United have shown this season is they can come back from such disappointing form, much like they have in title winning seasons of the past. This ability to weather their own storms could be what catapults them from top four challengers to title challengers.
If the trademark unpredictability of the Premier League isn’t enough of a reason to give credence to a United title challenge, history may serve to be a better one instead. In the competition’s 28-year history, 16 of the eventual title winners led the division at this stage in the season, including Liverpool and Manchester City in recent years. This is something United themselves achieved on numerous occasions back in the Fergie days.
More than anything though, the prospect of a Manchester United Premier League title win comes down to consistency. It may sound like a simple copout, but consistency could very well be what defines this Premier League season. Once Man City found their groove under Pep Guardiola, they became unstoppable due to their relentlessly high calibre performances. Liverpool were the same under Jurgen Koop following the additions of Alisson and Virgil Van Dijk, which boosted them up to City’s level, before surpassing them en route to their first ever Premier League title after 30 years off the summit of English football.
Nobody is saying that Manchester United in their current form are of the level of a 17/18 Man City or a 19/20 Liverpool, or even level with either team now in terms of quality. United have shown this season, as have many others, that the ups and downs in football come thick and fast, especially in a season as irregular as 2020/21.
But United should be commended for overcoming their shaky start, going on an extended unbeaten run, and once again putting themselves at the top of the table. The team has given their fans something to be truly excited for the first time in a long time, and the team has given their fans something that the other big players in league haven’t been giving their fans this season.
In a season like this, Manchester United can absolutely win the Premier League. Whether you want to call that them the best of a bad bunch through an odd campaign, or whether you want to call it a full United resurgence, is up to you.
But in the end, I’m sure plenty of United fans would be happy to see their past title restored, even in the strangest of circumstances.