When Ole Gunnar Solskjær says Manchester United have “not really set the world alight” this season, the manager’s true sense might be read as: “You ain’t seen nothing yet – just wait until we do catch fire.”
United arrive at Anfield on Sunday to play Liverpool as Premier League leaders, three points ahead of the champions while not at their best. That is a rosy place to be for United because they possess the quality to perform far better.
For a glimpse of how, rewind to last season’s post-lockdown resumption when United burned through the opposition. During a nine-match unbeaten run, which included victories over Sheffield United, Brighton and Aston Villa (all 3-0), Bournemouth (5-2), and Crystal Palace and Leicester (2-0), they were a relentless proposition that collected 23 of a possible 27 points.
Such stellar form has been viewed only in flashes this term, yet they kick off vying with their neighbours Manchester City to be the contenders most likely – at this juncture – to take their Premier League crown.
Last season ended in a third-place finish thanks to the final-day win at Leicester. Mason Greenwood did not score that day but the United teenager had contributed five goals in the nine-game sequence, his billing as the club’s finest finisher – according to Solskjær – terrifying defences and adding fresh menace to their attack.
Greenwood’s 17 goals in 2019-20 placed him alongside George Best, Brian Kidd and Wayne Rooney as the club’s highest-scoring teenager. This season, the 19-year-old has yet to approach the same level: he has featured in 11 of United’s 17 league games and scored once, with three goals in 21 appearances overall. If his form in the second half of this campaign can mirror last term’s, United will have a potent weapon.
Solskjær can also call on others who could still help decorate a title push. If Anthony Martial can rediscover how to finish United will only benefit. He has gone from the 23-goal top scorer of last season to a paltry return of five in 21 outings. Hidden here, though, is how the Frenchman has become a more muscular centre-forward, his mazy runs often scattering defenders around him.
The manager can also expect more from his three new signings once they settle in fully at Old Trafford. Alex Telles offers a fresh attacking threat from left-back, while Edinson Cavani can be Solskjær’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a senior centre-forward whose drive at 33 to extract the maximum from the autumn of his career is inspiring Martial, Greenwood and others to greater heights, as the Swede did when José Mourinho recruited him in 2016.
The last of Solskjær’s summer acquisitions is Donny van de Beek. The 23-year-old is a midfielder of the Ajax school who is first-choice in the position for the Netherlands. He has an impressive pedigree but cannot get in the manager’s strongest XI. Van de Beek’s brief appearances, though, suggest a technical ability and slick style that may prove another telling asset should Solskjær introduce him more regularly.
Van de Beek’s situation illustrates how competition has been key in United’s rise and should continue to enhance quality. Even the erratic Paul Pogba has found a high gear, scoring the winner in Tuesday’s victory at Burnley. Still, he recognises Solskjær could drop him for the Anfield showdown.
“Results have been good so it’s always difficult – he has to make some changes, some decisions and, you never know, I could be on the bench or play the next game,” says Pogba. “I just need to be ready and take my chance to play and help the team as much as they [others] have been doing.
“Every time you play, you are on your toes and you want to do great because the guys next to you give everything as well. That’s building a team – it’s about the team and it shows that we have each other’s backs and we push each other to the limit to do great.”
Solskjær’s aim is for United to occupy the rarefied air of league champions. They have the potential, now they have to realise it, starting on Sunday on Merseyside.