There’s not a chance in hell Manchester United win the Premier League this season. The odds of them accomplishing what should be the bare minimum for the richest club in the world—finishing in the Champions League places—are better, but hardly great. Barring multiple calamities on the part of a couple fellow members of the Big Six, by May United likely will still find themselves at the end of yet another failed season, will still need to convince a new coach to willingly throw himself into the throat of the volcano in which the Red Devils’ manager chair rests, will still need to spend roughly one zillion dollars on new players who can help bridge the gap between the club and its two fiercest rivals, and will still need years of hard work before they can realistically hope to be back where they belong, at or near the top of England’s and Europe’s elite.
However, for the first time in a long time, it’s starting to feel like United are finally on the path to getting there.
The tenure of interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær couldn’t have started any better. In his first match after taking over from José Mourinho, Solskjær’s boys whipped Cardiff City by a score of 5-1. It was the first time United had scored five or more goals in a single game since Alex Ferguson’s final match in charge, and it was a promising indication of the manager’s intent to return United to their proud legacy of attacking ferocity that had been neglected since Sir Alex retired.
United continued to rattle off comfortable wins by multiple goals after that first game. While the competition during that span was incredibly weak (in Solskjær’s first five matches, four were in the league against opponents with an average current table position of 16.75, while the fifth was an F.A. Cup match against Reading, a team currently in the second division’s relegation zone), United were doing what they should be doing and what they hadn’t done often enough under Mourinho: hammering teams smaller than themselves.
The true test of Nu United’s mettle wouldn’t come until this past weekend, when Man Utd traveled to London to face Spurs. Tottenham have what United want: a consolidated spot in the top four with a puncher’s chance at the title, a style of play as effective as it is mesmerizing, a generationally great manager who makes sure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the best striker in the world who doubles as England’s one true superstar, a core of young and exciting studs leading the team to present glory and auguring well for an even brighter future, and the confidence and faith of everyone in and around the club that as long as the band sticks together, nothing should be able to knock them down. United might’ve entered the match on a good streak, but Tottenham were and are still in the midst of a phenomenal era.
A win, or at the very least a good performance, and United could start to believe that the twinkle of Solskjær’s brief but so-far thrilling tenure might be more gold than pyrite. A loss, and the club would find itself knocked on its ass once again, forced to confront the idea that this period was likely yet another false dawn. And that’s why United’s 1-0 upset was so important.
It is a little funny how United’s win this weekend, the one fans will point to as definitive proof that the Red Devils have officially turned a corner, felt a lot like a Mourinho special. After nabbing a first-half goal from a long-ball attack, United spent much of the second half granting Spurs possession of the ball and sitting back and hoping to withstand the coming onslaught. As has been the case too often over the years, David de Gea was easily United’s standout player. The Spanish goalkeeper’s shot stopping was absolutely unreal, and if he’d had even a slightly less superhuman game, United probably would’ve lost.
Still, while the match did bear a resemblance to the kinds of wins Mourinho regularly eked out at his best, the areas where United differed from the typical Mourinho set-up are what made Sunday’s victory and the ones leading up to it so encouraging. At least during the first half, with the game in the balance, United were fearless in their determination to push numbers forward and attack at pace. These forays forward were facilitated by two crucial alterations Solskjær has made since getting the top job: handing Paul Pogba a freer and more attack-minded role, and starting Marcus Rashford in his natural position as a center forward.
Pogba and Rashford were the architects of Sunday’s lone goal, and they have been the biggest beneficiaries of Solskjær’s new approach. In the five league matches under the new manager, Pogba has been on scorching form, scoring four goals and adding another four assists. Rashford too has started all five of Solskjær’s match, and has done so from the striker position, which was a happy return for him after playing so many minutes out of position as a wide player over the past couple seasons. He’s rewarded the manager’s faith with four goals and one assist. Add in the consistent playing time Anthony Martial’s been getting of late, the reemergence of Victor Lindelöf at center back, and the five consecutive EPL wins that have put United back within striking distance six points off of fourth place, and suddenly United’s squad looks less ruinous and their prospects of qualifying for the Champions League less hopeless. Much of that turnout has to go to the tactical and cultural changes Solskjær has brought about.
Now, no one at United should get too far ahead of themselves. Just because United have dusted a handful of shitty teams and narrowly beat a very good one doesn’t mean all is right in Manchester. As good as Solskjær has been, it would still be crazy to give him the manager gig full-time unless he somehow manages to keep this run of success going against better opposition throughout the rest of the season. While United’s attack and defense have looked much improved over the past month, the club still must plot a comprehensive overhaul of the squad in the short-to-medium term if they are to seriously challenge for trophies. And both of those crucial decisions—who to name coach and which players to bring in—will come from a braintrust that has flubbed almost every big choice before them in the post-Fergie era.
Manchester United still aren’t MANCHESTER UNITED again, not yet and probably not for a good while. But with every Pogboom pass that races through the air, every bullet strike Rashford smashes into the net, every well-earned serenade United’s deliriously happy fans rain down upon their returned legend in the manager seat, you can’t help but notice some of that spirit and attitude of the old United creeping back in. For now, that is more than enough.