Ken Early: Resurgent United can be the top team – in Manchester

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have lost fewer matches in the league than Man City

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says the sky is the limit for teenage forward Mason Greenwood, who is enjoying a breakthrough season at Old Trafford. Video: MUTV/Reuters

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The last time Manchester United won the league, they finished miles ahead of their biggest rivals: 11 points ahead of second-placed Manchester City and 28 points clear of Liverpool in seventh.

Back in 2013 it was debatable whether Liverpool could even really be considered rivals. The main reason for acting like they still were was to annoy City, who were obviously the bigger threat to United’s dominance on the field.

That’s certainly how Alex Ferguson saw it as he handed over control to his hand-picked successor, David Moyes, at the end of his last campaign. His second autobiography, published in October of that year, gives some insight into just how far behind he thought Liverpool were.

It turned out that Liverpool didn’t need to buy nine players, or even seven, to challenge for the title

“There was no evidence in my final season that Liverpool, despite some excellent performances, possessed a team who might win the League,” Ferguson wrote. “I was coming out of the Grand National meeting with [wife] Cathy in April 2013 and two Liverpool fans came up alongside to say, ‘Hey Fergie, we’ll hammer you next season.’ They were good lads.

“‘Well, you’ll need to buy nine players,’ I said. They looked crestfallen. ‘Nine?’ One said: ‘Wait till I tell the boys in the pub that.’ I think he must have been an Everton fan. ‘I don’t think we need nine,’ said the other as he traipsed away. I nearly shouted, ‘Well, seven, then.’ Everyone was laughing.”

Six players

Liverpool signed six players that summer: Simon Mignolet, Mamadou Sakho, Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas, Kolo Touré and Tiago Ilori - and brought in two more on loan: Aly Cissokho and Victor Moses. Of these signings, only Mignolet played most of the league games, and only Sakho could be said to have actually improved the team. Yet somehow the final league table showed second-placed Liverpool 20 points clear of United in seventh: a 48-point swing.

It turned out that Liverpool didn’t need to buy nine players, or even seven, to challenge for the title. All the key players from the team that was about to do so, scoring a club record 101 goals in the league, were already at the club: Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard. But as this collection of players had not been together very long – with Coutinho and Sturridge having arrived in the January 2013, and Sterling breaking into the team as an 18-year old in the same season – nobody suspected they had the potential to combine into something extraordinary.

Mason Greenwood of Manchester United in action against Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale during Saturday’s Premier League match between Manchester United and Bournemouth. Photograph: Dave Thompson/EPA
Mason Greenwood of Manchester United in action against Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale during Saturday’s Premier League match between Manchester United and Bournemouth. Photograph: Dave Thompson/EPA

How did that 48-point swing come about? Half of it was due to improvement at Liverpool, who gained 23 points. Out of a squad that had looked an unstructured mess of mediocrity, a team unexpectedly emerged, crystallising around Suárez, whose young team-mates were inspired by his example. They still could not defend, but that becomes less of a problem when everyone is terrified of your attack.

Out of focus

At United something like the opposite process took place, as Ferguson’s retirement threw everything out of focus. The club hierarchy he had headed for 27 years dissolved overnight. It turned out you could not simply plug another manager into the vacancy Ferguson had left and expect the system to keep working the same way. Who was in charge of this team now? Was it Robin van Persie, the recent signing whose goals won the title the season before? Was it Wayne Rooney, who headed the payroll? Was it Rio Ferdinand, who was approaching his 35th birthday? The one thing everyone understood was that it wasn’t the tense, stiff, confusingly deferential new manager. The champions ended up losing 25 points year-on-year.

José Mourinho’s struggles at Spurs are a reminder of how he drilled a culture of defeatism into Manchester United

The point is that things can change in football much faster than you expect. Collapses can be sudden and improvement is not necessarily predictable or linear. Liverpool’s metamorphosis into challengers from 2013 to 2014 isn’t even the most striking recent example. That would be Leicester City, who finished 14th in 2015, with 41 points, and first with 81 points the following season. Some of their signings that summer made a real difference to the team: Christian Fuchs, Robert Huth, Shinji Okazaki and N’Golo Kanté – but nobody could reasonably have expected them to make 40 points’ worth of difference. Everything simply came together for Leicester. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were the best attacking players in the league, Kanté the best midfielder, the defence and goalkeeper were at least as good as any of the rivals, so Leicester were champions.

José Mourinho’s recent struggles at Spurs are a reminder of how he drilled a culture of defeatism into Manchester United. Unable to deliver success in keeping with his personal brand, he acted as though nobody could have succeeded at such a club: it’s not me, it’s you. He told them they lacked “football heritage” and some of the players believed the gaslighting.

Resurgence

United’s current resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is being led by two players who were spared the Mourinho years and were never persuaded in their hearts of the essential hopelessness of United’s cause: Bruno Fernandes, whose arrival in January seemed to remind his team-mates that football can be fun, and Mason Greenwood, who this weekend scored two superb goals against Bournemouth to take his league tally to eight.

Greenwood now ranks second in the league in goals per minute among players who have played at least 200 minutes. Only Sergio Agüero has scored at a higher rate in the Premier League this season, so Greenwood is ahead of all the other big names – Vardy, Danny Ings, Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and so on.

The phenomenal statistic is made even more impressive by the way Greenwood has done it, turning and going straight for goal, shooting earlier than seems possible, through spaces that don’t seem to exist, finding gaps the goalkeepers didn’t realise were there, and doing it all with unnerving calm and assurance. He gives the impression of being able to score out of nothing. The emergence of a player like this can change the whole outlook for a club.

With five matches to go it turns out, almost unbelievably, that United have lost fewer matches in the league than Manchester City. The gap between the sides is only 11 points. The gap to the top is 34, so a first title in eight years next season hardly seems feasible. But, for the first time since Ferguson retired, it feels like there is a good chance of United being the top team in Manchester.

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