It has been just over a decade since Manchester United and Liverpool went head to head in the Premier League while both sitting at the division’s summit.
The 2008/09 season to be precise. Rafa Benitez’s infamous ‘facts’ rant, Federico Macheda’s fairytale winner in his debut against Aston Villa and United going on to pip Liverpool to the title by four points.
Since then, both of the clubs have been through the ringer. The defending champions done their fair share of suffering early into the 2010’s. United took over the baton just as their arch rivals were about to begin their ascend under Jurgen Klopp, shortly following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
After many ups and downs while monumentally failing at trying to quickly fix and wake the sleeping giant, United finally decided to take a different approach after relieving Jose Mourinho of his duties late in 2018.
Now, for the first time in a long time under current boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it has felt like United are headed in the right direction. They have taken up a stable upward trajectory. And granted, there has been a fair share of bumping and bruising along the way too. But, going to Anfield as the league leaders on Sunday, in January, is the proof that a cultural reset and a real long-term plan was what the club needed.
The gap between United and Liverpool has been growing unforgivingly for the last two or three years. After a promising season in his first full term in charge last year (finished third), this season was all about closing the gap on the champions for Solskjaer and his side.
United can create a six point gap of their own tomorrow. There is no denying that this has come somewhat ahead of schedule. This team is still young, raw and learning how to win. We have seen as recently as last month that in the biggest moments, they can still crumble under pressure. But following the shock Champions League group stage exit, something changed.
We knew Solskjaer wanted a major cultural reset. United lost that grit and fire under three previous managers that had little to no association with the club and its principles. For whatever managerial flaws that Solskjaer has, his knowledge of the club is second to none; he loves United and he has reinvigorated the whole club and instilled that same passion in his players, old and new.
Putting the club above himself and taking the blame for some performances that deserved public criticism, his players have now stepped up for him.
Over the past couple of months, it has felt like everyone has finally bought in. The manager trusts the players and the player trust the manager. They are all on a mutual quest to bring United back to the top. A win away to Liverpool, ending their outstanding undefeated home record that ranges all the way back to 2017 would be a gigantic step in that direction.
United have not lost in 11 league games (since Nov. 1). Through all of Liverpool’s struggles, injury woes and uneven performances, this is arguably the best time for Solskjaer’s Reds to play them. The two sides are on opposite ends of the confidence spectrum. They both will be desperate to win, but United have a bigger point to prove.
Below are three things that we have learned from United’s excellent run of form in the league that was extended at Turf Moor:
Learning to win ugly
The last three league games for United have been big tests that resulted in three big wins. 1-0 vs. Wolves and Burnley and a 2-1 win over Aston Villa sandwiched in between.
Those results exemplified the ever growing determination, togetherness and hunger in the team. There were moments of individual brilliance and sacrifice in all three that proved to be the difference between winning and dropping points. Team spirit.
Against Wolves, Marcus Rashford went the extra mile and took an opportunistic shot which saw the ball deflect in. Against Villa, Eric Bailly put his body on the line in the last second to block a shot that saved the three points. Against Burnley, everyone defended the long ball approach as a unit and got rewarded for it with a moment of Paul Pogba brilliance to snatch the three points that sent United top of the league.
Those are the kind of things that players in the past refused to do in order to win. Now, winning is what matters most — at all costs. You can argue that it was Solskjaer who brought that never say die attitude with the United badge on your chest back. Or that Bruno’s winning mentality rubbed off on everyone associated with the club. But in reality, it’s all of the above — and more.
Everyone, other than the media, has bought into Solskjaer’s long-term project. The players are clearly playing for him and his man management along with tactical nous is clearly getting the best out of the personnel at his disposal.
The Norwegian has put together a team in his second season that has enough leadership, winners and youth in it to go all the way — no doubt. Will they? That is to be determined.
There are more testing times ahead, there is no question about it. This team is not the finished article yet. But the quality in depth and the mentality has improved so much over the last 24 months, that you should not look past them.
If you look past the lazy narrative that United ‘bottle’ all the big games because they lost four semi-finals in a row under Solskjaer, you will see that his side has been the most consistent in the Premier League over the last year and by far the most consistent this season thus far. They have earned the respect of all the opposition managers.
Paul Pogba is back
If you only look at the numbers, you won’t see it. The Frenchman does have a goal and an assist in the last two games — both at crucial moments, too. But his overall performances since making a full recovery from injury and Covid-19 have been gradually improving.
The recovery process entailed some disappointing outings and numerous starts on the bench. But it was all done on different terms than under Solskjaer’s predecessor. When Mourinho benched Pogba, it was clear that there was malicious intent there and United often discombobulated on the pitch. When Solskjaer did it, United were winning anyway and the Frenchman looked happy to play whatever role was needed.
In spite of losing out to Mourinho in managerial credentials, experience and accolades, Solskjaer’s credentials as a United legend demand a different kind of respect from the players at the club. He won it all at the club and he knows what he is talking about when he preaches about the things that United players should and shouldn’t do. That respect was clear in Pogba’s attitude and willingness to work hard and earn his spot back in the side.
Of late, United’s No. 6 has continued to be involved in daily rumors regarding his future. No news there. But his performances on the pitch have held up and distracted the media from the transfer window. Pogba has become a key part in United’s winning formula.
As a player who in spite of being a midfield general always wants to take risks and go forward, Pogba was near flawless against the Clarets. 90 minutes played, 106 touches, 71 accurate passes made at an 87.7% clip, including two key passes, 7 out of 9 long balls and the winning goal (SofaScore). The Frenchman has got his swagger back at the heart of United’s midfield.
He is still arguably United’s biggest star all things considered, but the arrival and efficiency of Bruno has taken a lot of weight off his shoulders. Finally, the club stopped looking to Pogba when things went wrong and instead, added a star to help him win.
United signing players to ‘unlock’ Pogba is a running joke on social media. But the acquisition of Fernandes might have actually done just that. The Frenchman is once again playing with freedom and a smile on his face. He is diligently carrying out his defensive tasks, winning crucial aerial duels and now, most recently, contributing down his favored end of the pitch too.
Quality in the squad taking pressure off Bruno
Bruno is a goal contributions machine. It’s often difficult to judge his performances because he could have a really frustrating night and still be the match winner. But that’s what great players do.
The Portuguese talisman has been one of the best pieces of business in the history of Manchester United already. He can play it down all he likes in interviews, but his arrival inspired everyone within the club. After the likes of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic left, the players at United didn’t really see a true born winner — someone who will do anything it takes to win. Until Bruno.
You can tell by his body language, the passion in his celebrations, the couple of arguments that we have seen him get into with his teammates on the pitch, he absolutely hates losing. That has to rub off on you sooner rather than later. There will come a point in time when you simply won’t want to disappoint him.
That’s the story many former players tell about Sir Alex. It wasn’t that he would always have to get players up for a game or present a one hour seminar on tactics. Often, he would walk in and out of the dressing room and the players in it knew that they just couldn’t let him down on the pitch. They were almost scared to let him down.
Bruno has had that sort of immediate impact on his teammates at United. The performance levels of pretty much everyone elevated. Since his arrival, United only lost three times in the league and collected the most points and wins out of everyone. That’s an almost 12 month sample size now. It’s no fluke.
There were and certainly still will be moments when it’ll look like Bruno has to carry all of the load and almost single handedly win games for United. And again, that’s what great players do. But with that said, recently, others have been stepping up more.
Bruno has not had a direct goal contribution in the last two matches in all competitions — one of a very few times that has happened since his arrival. But United have still found ways to win and if not, then at least play well and not just roll over for the opposition.
Rashford has been doing it since last season. The Englishman’s rise is a story of its own as he has now seemingly picked up the Bruno goal contributions bug too. Whether his performance is good or below par, you can always rely on him in the key moments to step up.
In addition, we already mentioned Pogba’s renaissance. The return to fitness of Bailly has been significant and the Ivorian has already won some points for United on his own this season. Edinson Cavani’s experience and impact in key moments has already shone through. The Uruguayan has produced a few big performances in a red shirt already. Scott McTominay too has chipped in with some massive goals this season.
All of the above will ultimately always come down to that winning mentality. That desire, hunger, passion that you need in order to win football matches. The shift in the mental strength of many of the players that have struggled with that weight on their shoulders in the past is worthy of praise. They are not shying away from the big moments anymore.
But in order for that to be flame to be ignited — someone had to come in, light the fire and hold them accountable. Someone had to steady the ship, take charge of the dressing room and totally change the course. Solskjaer has proved to be that someone.
In spite of his constant doubters and the criticism that never really stops falling on his head, the Norwegian has been patient and won the trust of the board and most fans. The direction is clear now. It might not happen this season, but it certainly does feel like United are coming.
People may try to tell you that United need consistency in order to win the league. But the facts are, they have been consistent. United became very good at not losing games while working on their identity and how they want to play. Now, the Reds are converting many of those draws into wins.
At Anfield, the biggest test of them all awaits. Win, lose or draw, the sun will shine again on Monday and United will not be any closer or further from winning the title. But the amount of good that getting three points at the home of the seemingly invincible defending champions would do is impossible to quantify.