It’s happening. As the Premier League season approaches its halfway point, Manchester United are top of the table. Not only top in fact, but three points clear and in command of their own destiny with a trip to Anfield next up on Sunday.
This is the first time that United have sat at the summit beyond New Year’s Day since Sir Alex Ferguson was overseeing the last of his 13 title-winning campaigns. Whatever happens, it is an extraordinary turnaround for a side that lost three of their first six games and their manager.
“We are getting better and better,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said post-match, but he still feels it is too soon to come out and call this a title challenge. “We are almost halfway through so it is a little bit of indication of where you are at, but nobody will remember the league table on January 12.”
Solskjaer knows that Liverpool - who he described as “the team that has been the best by a mile in the country for the last year and a half” - will provide a true test of United’s credentials on Sunday. It was only a few weeks ago that Jurgen Klopp’s side were everyone’s favourites.
Manchester City are ominously stalking the pacesetters from the back of the pack, too. If Paul Pogba’s spectacular match-winning volley had never arrived and United had only drawn at Turf Moor, they would still have gone top but Pep Guardiola’s side would have held the initiative with two games in hand.
Both City and Liverpool have a squad with recent experience of competing for and winning the title. United, meanwhile, have about as much pedigree as the rest of the chasing pack. Third-place Leicester City - still quietly going under the radar - have plenty more winners’ medals within their squad.
With 10 points separating all the teams in the top half, it is difficult to judge any side’s title credentials. But looking back at previous winners helps to provide context, especially in the case of United.
It is no surprise their record this season does not compare favourably with the last three title-winning sides. Liverpool and City set a standard which even Klopp and Guardiola may struggle to equal for some time. The only prediction anyone is currently confident enough to make in this most unpredictable of seasons is that we will not see another 95-point plus winner.
For what it’s worth, United are currently on course to finish with 80. Only three sides have been crowned Premier League champions with fewer - United in 1997, Arsenal in 1998 and United’s treble winners in 1999, as surprising as that may be. In the last decade, only Ferguson’s 2010-11 champions - labelled ‘the Unconvincibles’ - finished with as few as 80 points. Leicester’s 2016 winners managed 81.
Delve deeper beyond points totals and United still come up slightly short of title-winning standard. During the 38-game Premier League era, title-winning sides have scored an average of 82 goals and conceded 32. United are projected to score a below-par but competitive 76, eight more than the worst title-winning attacks during this era. But they are also on course to concede 54, nine more than the worst title-winning defence.
The underlying numbers are no better. Solskjaer’s side are averaging 1.7 xG each game while conceding 1.3, giving a xG goal difference of +0.4. That is unsurprisingly a long way off Guardiola’s City title winners (+1.5), behind last year’s Liverpool (+0.8), less than both of Chelsea’s two most recent title-winning sides (+0.8 and +0.9) and less than Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester (+0.6) too.
Why is this? United are winning games but they are not yet consistently dominating opponents. On closer inspection, this reflected in the 11-game unbeaten league run. Six of their nine wins during this spell have come by one goal. Several of them have been deserved but have nevertheless come late, like against Wolves and Southampton. Others, like against Aston Villa, could have gone either way.
Even when considering the 3-1 win at Everton which kicked everything off, the three points were only made absolutely safe by a 95th-minute Edinson Cavani strike on the counter-attack. A victory at West Ham by the same scoreline included United’s worst first half display of the league season outside the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham. Only the thrashing of Leeds was a true blow-out.
This is not meant as a criticism of Solskjaer or United. Another interpretation would be that United are winning games without always being at their best, or turning draws into wins and finding ways to win the points that are needed to sustain a title challenge. That is, as we are so often told, the mark of champions. Once Anfield is out of the way, a favourable run of fixtures up until mid-February could help bolster their credentials further.
And of course, the caveat to all these comparisons with title winners of the past is that United do not need to beat last year’s Liverpool, City’s Centurions or even Ranieri’s Leicester. They only need to finish ahead of 19 other flawed teams at the end of a top-flight season like no other in English football’s modern history. With 17 games gone, they are in the driving seat. Now, we wait to see whether they have what it takes.
Expected goal numbers from FBRef/Statsbomb used for 2017-18 to 2019-20 seasons, Infogol for 2014-15 to 2016-17