Normally, title challenges come through statement wins, memorable goals and a sense – more than anything else – that this particular team at this particular moment has caught lightning in a bottle. That has not really been the case with Manchester United, though.
The rise of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to the top of the Premier League table and into title contention over the past few weeks has felt much more delicate than that, as if at any moment it could be lacerated by a pinprick. The question now, after bottom-of-the-league Sheffield United’s first win at Old Trafford since 1973, is whether the bubble has burst.
“Any result in the Premier League this season shouldn’t surprise anyone but we’re very disappointed we couldn’t put a better performance on,” Solskjaer admitted on Wednesday night. “We just couldn’t find an opening, behind or round or between a very compact and good Sheffield United defence.”
Solskjaer questioned two key decisions by referee Peter Bankes – first, to allow Kean Bryan’s opener despite Billy Sharp’s push on David de Gea; second, to disallow an Anthony Martial equaliser after Harry Maguire was judged to have unfairly challenged Aaron Ramsdale. “The big moments went against us,” he lamented. “Incredible,” said a disbelieving Maguire.
And yet deep down, despite their protests, United’s captain and manager both knew that they shouldn’t need to fall on the right side of two refereeing decisions to beat opponents who, before kick-off, had taken five points from half a season’s worth of fixtures and had lost to every top-flight side from 15th-place upwards.
It was not as though United particularly deserved any more from the game and, even during the recent run, the threat of a result like this was always present.
The signs were there. Wednesday’s defeat ended a 13-game unbeaten run – one short of equalling United’s longest under Solskjaer – including ten wins and three draws. Without it, a title challenge would not have been considered possible. But how convincing has it been?
Of the wins, five have been comebacks, only three have come by more than one goal and only the 6-2 victory over Leeds can really be called comfortable. How much any team should read into their results against such a unique side is up for debate, too. The 3-1 at Everton was secured late. The 3-1 at West Ham was, strangely, one of the worst performances of the lot.
The other six have all come by one goal, as did Sunday’s FA Cup fourth round win over Liverpool. At Anfield in the league, Solskjaer’s side missed an opportunity to take three valuable points against title rivals. It was the same story against Manchester City at Old Trafford, back when Pep Guardiola’s side were still waiting to hit their stride, and against third-place Leicester City on Boxing Day.
Let’s not shift the goalposts around too much, though or pretend that United haven’t made progress. They have. The table is still congested at the top and there is plenty of time for further twists and turns this season but whereas United’s chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League felt no better than a coin toss a few months ago, Solskjaer will reckon it is well within their reach now.
It should also be made clear: United are still in second place, just one point off the leaders in a year when they were not expected to compete. It is a cliché but the character of the wins against Burnley, Wolves and Aston Villa all spoke to a group of players who consider themselves to be true challengers. Several of those narrow victories did not fairly reflect United’s dominance either, with streaky finishing or clinical opponents costing them a wider margin.
But win by wide margins and you might win by fine margins in the long run. City’s goal difference was -1 in mid-November, shortly after the start of United’s 13-game unbeaten run. It is now +23, the league’s best by far. United’s is +10, less than mid-table Aston Villa’s. Already, that gap feels like one that they will struggle to bridge. If a title challenge does still emerge from Old Trafford this year, that will be another edge in Guardiola’s favour.
Solskjaer did not directly criticise any of his players after the final whistle. “The boys have been absolutely terrific for the last few months,” he said. “They’ve been really, really consistent with a high performance level.” When asked about Martial’s desperate goal-scoring form, he shared the blame around. “I think the whole team will probably get criticism tonight and myself as well,” he said. “I don’t think Anthony’s exempt from that. We’re all to be criticised because we didn’t perform.”
His post-match debriefs have almost always been like this, even after the most difficult of results. This has helped the dressing room to heal – it did after the 6-1 against Tottenham, after the Champions League group stage exit too – and it will provide a foundation for the next revival in their fortunes.
But champions-in-waiting rarely need to keep picking themselves up off the canvas. And whether United are contenders or just pretenders, this was a body blow.