Despite recording their worst start to a season since 1986, Manchester United will now enter Christmas Day in third-place and more importantly, within plausible distance of catching Manchester City and Chelsea at the Premier League’s summit.
Indeed, a run of six wins in their last seven, only ended by a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa last weekend, has forced the Old Trafford outfit back into conversations about the English title, providing further evidence of Louis van Gaal’s managerial acumen and why he’s worked with some of the biggest clubs in European football.
At this point in time, there’s no debate over whether Manchester United will be a factor in this year’s title race. Not only are they supplying the necessary pressure from below that Liverpool and Arsenal have failed to, making every point Chelsea and City squander all the more significant, but they’ve also proved they’ll be no pushovers when it comes to the six pointers.
Despite taking just a point off Chelsea and City thus far this season, they were competitive against both – a far cry from last season under David Moyes, where the Red Devils became the top six’s whipping boys – whilst wins over Everton, Arsenal, West Ham and Liverpool further underline United’s credentials Premier League heavyweights this year.
But does being involved in the title race necessarily make you genuine title contenders? It all depends on how you define that term – take Arsenal for example. They’ve finished, on average, 16 points off the top over the last nine years, their closest margin being five points back in 2007/08, yet have been regarded as a legitimate part of the title race throughout the vast majority of that period. United are arguably falling under that same false description.
They clearly feel like title contenders, in large part due to having the weight of history on their side. Wayne Rooney believes United are in the race and Louis van Gaal’s made a similar admission, somewhat counter-intuitively, after the draw to Aston Villa.
And the prevailing argument supporting United is certainly a logical one. Van Gaal’s had to battle against impossible injury problems and subsequent changes in systems, not to mention the enduring adaption process at the start of the season, yet his Red Devils side are still securing results and now within sight of the league leaders. Even amid their recent run of six wins in seven, United portray a team yet to discover top gear, so one can only envisage what heights their form will reach between now and May – especially with a fully fit squad.
Extrapolate the improvement they’ve made since the summer onto the rest of the season and the reverse fixtures against Chelsea and City, both within the same April fortnight, could involve a United side that bears little resemblance to who the Premier League’s big boys faced the first time around.
There’s the January window to consider too; a top class centre-back and holding midfielder could completely transform United, providing the necessary balance and defensive quality they currently lack. United proved in the summer that they aren’t afraid to spend unprecedented fees, so they won’t hesitate if the their preferred targets, the likes of Kevin Strootman and Mats Hummels, become available.
That being said, Chelsea and City are still a level above United at this moment in time. The Blues are deliciously pragmatic and equipped with an incredible squad, whilst the Citizens demonstrated last season how unstoppable they can be, even without talismanic goalscorer Sergio Aguero, recording an incredible 103 Premier League goals. Perhaps most importantly, both sides boast two of the best defences in the league. United’s defence, on the other hand, currently poses more questions than answers.
Furthermore, United are currently ten points behind Chelsea, but the Blues have dropped just nine points in the first half of the season. Football is too spectacularly unpredictable to be reduced to a simple mathematical sum, but Jose Mourinho’s sides always tend to thrive, rather than shy away, when the pressure builds.
Thus, although United will uundoubtedly influence matters at the top of the table this season, in my opinion at least, it’s a simple case of a few weeks too late in regards to the title itself. Had the Red Devils’ miraculous turnaround commenced a few weeks earlier, perhaps things would be different. Their squad clearly has the quality to challenge; they’ve just let City and Chelsea have too big a head start.
So are they genuine title contenders? No – they’re this season’s nearly men. Having already made so much positive progress under his leadership however, few would bet against van Gaal winning the Premier League crown before his three-year contract expires.