17 games in, almost half way through a season. Christmas has come and gone and we’re smack-bang in the middle of a sleepy January transfer window. And Manchester United, Manchester United, are top of the Premier League table.

Nobody could have expected this in the hours after United were hit for six by Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham on October 4. It was a day as low as any single one we’d seen from post-Ferguson United, and made all the worse by the club’s most recently sacked manager patting the head of the man who succeeded him at full time, like a father would to his tearful young son who’d seen his team take a hiding.

It was a statement that Jose Mourinho was back, a signifier that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was finished, a rubber stamp for many that not even this PE teacher who used to wear United red could provide the remedy for a club broken by years of mismanagement. It was conclusive proof that Manchester United were not very good.

But fast forward just over three months, and here we are. Solskjaer’s United sit six points above Spurs and clear of two of the greatest teams in Premier League history, ahead of a trip to reigning champions Liverpool on Sunday afternoon. Liverpool, notably, have been very good over the last three years, Manchester City too. United have won more games and taken more points than each.

But how does a team who are not very good reach this position? Are Manchester United actually good now? The question was recently opened up to the Twitterverse and we’ll explore it as you read on.

Nowadays, what does good actually mean?

City and Liverpool have broken English football in recent years. So good they’ve been, and so consistent, that the bar has been raised from standard to superhuman. We’d never seen teams win the Premier League with 98, 99 or 100 points before this and both share a fresh all-time record of 18 consecutive league wins, set in seasons each won a title.

United have had, and still have serious problems of their own, but they’ve been made to look perhaps worse off on the pitch in recent seasons by the levels of their two biggest rivals.

The dominant narrative over the course of this season has been that it’ll be a campaign unlike any other, that unpredictability will reign. But since the day of United’s trouncing by Spurs and Liverpool’s 7-2 thumping at Aston Villa, we’ve reverted to something we’re far more accustomed to – the best teams taking the most points, but the chasing pack all able to spring a surprise. This is what the Premier League was and is again.

We’ve not moved away from normal, we’ve returned to it. We’re used to title races and level playing fields, not two unstoppable machines winning 30 league games each. The bar for judging what’s good has returned to what the Premier League is most familiar with.

What’s changed at Manchester United?

Manchester United have clearly benefitted from Liverpool’s recent drop off. Their total of 36 points sees them top of the league at the moment, but after 17 games in last year’s league they’d be sat third, 13 points off the lead. Context is key.

United have taken 11 more points from these matches than they did last season. Since Bruno Fernandes signed, they’ve taken six more than any Premier League team (68 from 31 games). And while this counts for nothing in terms of winning titles, it does let us measure the steps forward and highlight the impact the Portuguese has made since joining. He has changed this club.

Solskjaer’s chief job since his arrival, ironically after a defeat at Anfield in 2018, has been to regenerate the squad with academy graduates and ambitious players who want to win with Manchester United, while stripping away the deadwood high-earners and characters not pulling their weight. He warned it would take time and it has. But we’re starting to see the fruits of the labour.

Bruno fits the second profile category of targeted new signings. You can see his goals and assists as his most significant contribution, but his personality has been just as important. He has raised the level of everyone around him. Comparisons with Eric Cantona are perhaps premature, but you can at least see similarities in terms of impact on the playing squad.

Bruno Fernandes
Nobody’s made an impression like Bruno Fernandes has for some time | Pool/Getty Images

But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer loses semi-finals, went out of the Champions League and isn’t a top coach?

The first two points are statements of fact. United haven’t progressed to a final under the Norwegian and they blew a great chance to stay in the Champions League by losing two matches in terrible fashion. Beating Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig in their opening fixtures perhaps makes it worse.

And perhaps he’s not a top coach. He’s certainly not a Pep Guardiola, sweeping all before him with a brand of football we’ve never seen. He’s not made an army of staunch believers like Jurgen Klopp has. But you can now see the the long-term vision he’s had since returning to Old Trafford with on-field results and performances.

His United now have a confidence about them. There’s a level of dependability and consistency this season that we’ve only seen in streaks in his first two campaigns. They seem to react well to defeats – as evidenced by the responses to disappointing losses to Tottenham, Istanbul Basaksehir, RB Leipzig and Manchester City. United are now showing the character Solskjaer has been trying to develop.

Supporters can say with more confidence nowadays that even defeat at Anfield on Sunday (which is completely possible – Liverpool haven’t lost in the league at home since April 2017) will not lead to a downward spiral. You’d like to think the ability to respond when the chips are down is something they’ll retain from now on.

And Ole’s even held off the wild noise about Mauricio Pochettino taking his job, and recently pulled classy performances out of Paul Pogba despite Mino Raiola’s very public declarations that he wants to leave. Solskjaer deserves respect for that.

Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw
Paul Pogba’s making it almost impossible to leave him out of the team at present | Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The squad looks as good as it has in years

We’ve touched on it already, but Solskjaer has overseen an evolution at Manchester United that he previously warned would not be quick.

“It is going to be a rebuild. We know it’s going to take a few transfer windows because we’re not going to get six or seven players in at once,” he said in April 2019. “We have to take one step at a time. Any new player has to be the right player, the right fit. We have short-term and long-term aims. The long-term targets and ambitions won’t change regardless of what happens.”

He’s stuck true to his words, even while at the time he said them it was much more difficult for supporters to stomach. United at the time had lost five of their last seven matches and been eliminated from the Champions League by Barcelona.

That rebuild has taken place, but isn’t done. Still Phil Jones remains, though Marcos Rojo and Sergio Romero will depart in the summer at the latest. Timothy Fosu-Mensah has been sold this week, and there’s a few others to ship out. But it’s looking better.

United have bought well and true to his plan. Say what you want about Harry Maguire, but he’s a good centre back, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has shown promise and perhaps needs some guidance and development. Daniel James was a cheap risk that perhaps won’t pay off. But Edinson Cavani has proved a somewhat desperate success and Bruno Fernandes speaks for himself.

Adding Amad Diallo, one of the most exciting prospects in Italy, to a team boasting Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, with more to come, screams exciting future. And there’s a host of other players across the pitch of good ages and promise without accounting for who they’ll sign in 2021. If Solskjaer left tomorrow, the squad would be better built for future success than the one he came into.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s progress will be put to the biggest test on Sunday | Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

So, are Manchester United actually good now?

Judging good in the context of what’s around them, yes they are. But they are not yet at the standard of winning United teams past. As suggested earlier, that context is key.

There is though evidence to show they’re on a journey towards their former standards, or at least that this team is good enough to be judged against them again. Perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will not be the person to win them anything, or perhaps he could do the impossible and win the Premier League this season. Stranger things have happened, even if nobody’s expecting it. The fact that they’re even in the conversation as it stands is progress.

They’re good because they’ve shown they can beat the best teams in Europe (Liverpool aside, Sunday would be a good time to start) and they seem to have developed a consistency fans have been crying out for. This season they’ve beaten the teams they’re expected to beat; which was a long-term problem. But the development is not anywhere near complete as it stands, and that’s a magical thing when you consider they’re clear at the top of the league at the moment.

There’s reason for supporters to be confident in their team again, and that’s something that’s been lost for nearly eight years. They may not win at Anfield on Sunday, and they probably won’t, but just having the confidence that they could well make their mark again is a reason for excitement.

Liverpool away will be a timely test of how far Manchester United have come, and just how good they are. Most fans will tell you to bring it on.

For more from Scott Saunders, follow him on Twitter!


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