Remember back in the autumn when every bad Manchester United result would be followed by a reminder that this was their worst-ever start to a Premier League season? Well, this is still Manchester United’s worst-ever start to a Premier League season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have 45 points after 29 games. David Moyes had managed 48 by the same stage of his miserable 10 months in charge. To be honest, the raw numbers have made for pretty grim reading since September.
And yet before the pandemic, a fragile sense of optimism was building around Old Trafford.
United went 11 games unbeaten in all competitions, scoring 29 goals and conceding only two. That run included two Manchester derby wins, a victory at Stamford Bridge, safe passage to the FA Cup quarter-finals and putting one foot in the last eight of the Europa League.
What changed? The arrival of Bruno Fernandes, for one, has added an element of unpredictability and invention to a team that was badly one-dimensional. Authoritative wins over Tranmere, Watford, Club Brugge, Derby and LASK also suggest Solskjaer’s United are finally learning how to win without playing on the counter-attack.
And upon restarting, United will be strengthened by the return of top scorer Marcus Rashford. Once at risk of missing the remainder of the season, Rashford has now recovered from a stress fracture of the back and is likely to be unrivalled for United’s player of the season award, except maybe by the much-improved Fred.
Paul Pogba is fit again too and ready to add to his grand total of eight appearances this season. Has his absence been felt? Pogba only occasionally delivers the all-action performances which many expect but he is still United’s best player at moving the rest of the team up the pitch. Had he stayed fit this year, they would surely be better off.
There are plenty of reasons to be positive, then. But whether this season is determined to be a success or not will depend largely on Champions League qualification. Winning the Europa League is one option, if the competition ever finishes. Qualifying domestically is more likely and, if Manchester City’s two-year ban is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, fifth-place should be enough. As it stands, United would take that final spot but they have nine games to make sure of it.
Their restart begins with two crucial meetings against fellow Champions League hopefuls Tottenham and Sheffield United. After that, they face a stretch of games against teams they have typically struggled to beat. Six of United’s final nine Premier League opponents have already taken points from them this season. All but one of that six are in the bottom half.
Between now and the end of July, we will learn whether that pre-lockdown form was a temporary bounce or a sign of something more sustainable. We have been here before, of course. A wave of victories saw Solskjaer appointed on a permanent basis in March of last year, only for United to lose eight of their final 12 games.
Suffer another anti-climax like that and United can forget about returning to the Champions League at the first time of asking. Instead, that worst-ever Premier League start could become a worst-ever Premier League finish. A season of ups and downs at Old Trafford is still waiting to be defined as either a triumph or a disaster.