It’s official, Manchester United are genuine contenders for the Premier League title. Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Burnley, courtesy of Paul Pogba’s deflected volley in the second half, means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are three points clear at the top of the table. With a trip to Anfield to take on champions Liverpool next for United on Sunday, the Red Devils are suddenly in pole position having turned things around spectacularly over the last year. Here are five things United have to do if they are to win their first league title since 2013.
5 things Manchester United need to do to win the title
Keep Fernandes fit
Almost exactly a year ago, United slipped to a limp 2-0 loss at home to Burnley. It was arguably the worst performance of the Solskjaer era. Shortly after that loss, United completed the signing of Bruno Fernandes and the Portugal midfielder has had a transformative impact on the Red Devils.
Fernandes is perhaps the only truly world-class player in United’s ranks but he has dragged others close to his level, scoring 19 goals and providing 14 assists in 31 appearances in the Premier League to date. He has already won the Premier League’s Player of the Month award on three occasions – he is also nominated for December’s prize – and has been the best player in the league by some distance so far this season.
If Fernandes can maintain those superb levels, stopping United is going to take some doing.
Rivals to keep stumbling
Take nothing away from United. Their run of nine wins from their last 11 Premier League appearances has seen them rocket up the table. It is easy to forget United were destroyed 6-1 at home by Spurs a few months ago – a result some said should have seen Solskjaer sacked.
Nevertheless, the form of United’s title rivals has been fairly mediocre, allowing the Red Devils to take advance. Liverpool, ahead of Sunday’s blockbuster clash, have taken only two points from three games since their stunning 7-0 win away at Crystal Palace last month.
Manchester City are building some momentum but they appear to be in a period of transition under Pep Guardiola, while Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham are dogged by inconsistency. A draw at Anfield, extending Liverpool’s winless run to four games, would be a great result.
Get strikers in top form
Fernandes is United’s top scorer with 11 Premier League goals this season, four of which have been the opening goal of the game. But United need a lot more from his supporting cast.
Anthony Martial has only scored twice in 13 league games this season, while Marcus Rashford has managed seven strikes, but none of those have been hit since the turn of the year.
Summer signing Edinson Cavani has chipped in with three goals, with the veteran’s haul including a vital brace in a 3-2 win at Southampton.
Mason Greenwood’s promise is undoubted but the teenager has only netted once in the Premier League this season. Greenwood’s opportunities might also become more limited in the second half of the season after the arrival of wonderkid Amad Diallo from Atalanta.
If their frontline can start to score on a regular basis, Manchester United have a fantastic chance in the Premier League title race.
Settle the goalkeeping issue
United topping the table this season is despite David de Gea, rather than because of the experienced goalkeeper. He has kept five clean sheets but stats such as the expected goals on target (XGOT) metric show the Spain stopper is underperforming and continues to be in decline.
De Gea has an XGOT 14.04 this term and he has actually been beaten 15 times in the Premier League this season, giving him a negative score of 0.96 when it comes to goals prevented. By contrast, Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope tops the league this season with 6.35 goals prevented.
Pressure is being applied to De Gea after the return to the club of Dean Henderson after a stellar season spent on loan at Sheffield United, vaunting him in contention, along with Pope, to usurp Jordan Pickford as England’s number one goalkeeper.
Henderson ranked fourth in the league for goals prevented last season, with De Gea lagging behind in 10th spot. The talented young Englishman seems certain to take over as United’s first choice at some point in the future, but is Solskjaer bold and brave enough to make the call to drop De Gea?
After all, the 30-year-old is one of the only players in United’s squad to know what it takes to win the Premier League title. De Gea has also been named United’s Player of the Year four times.
Keep winning penalties!
It has become something of a running joke how frequently United win penalties in the Premier League, especially when so many of them – even in the era of VAR – seem to be very soft. Only Leicester City have scored more than the five penalties United have converted this season, with nearly half of the goals netted by Fernandes in 2020-21 coming from the spot.
United fans will probably argue Pogba should have won a penalty at Turf Moor this week but most supporters would agree refereeing decisions have gone in their favour this season. All teams need a bit of luck and this could be the difference for United in a tight title race.