If, and it’s an if with the added uncertainty of when the catch-up game will be played, Manchester United win their game in hand on the leaders, United will be just two points behind Liverpool in the Premier League table. Unless you think Man City and Chelsea, who are now behind United in the league table, aren’t really in contention either, it’s difficult to spot a way to deny that United really are at present title contenders.
But enough about what Man Utd might be. It’s what Man Utd are right now which is far more fun: perhaps not the best team in the land, but surely the most watchable.
Entertaining teams come in many forms. This United team’s speciality is entertaining in many forms. United don’t merely lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous from one game to the next, they usually manage to achieve both in the same game.
At Bramall Lane on Thursday night, United forgot to turn up for the first ten minutes, then scored three in third gear, swaggered around oozing class and arrogance before somehow nearly snatching a draw from defeat but for an excellent late save by Dean Henderson. With this particular Man Utd team, it pays to watch the full 90 minutes because you never quite know what they are going to do next.
The problem, of course, is that nagging feeling that disaster or crisis may not be far around the corner either. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finished with one side of Yorkshire on Thursday by referencing the visit of Leeds this Sunday as a “massive game, a big derby for us, we’ve been waiting for years to get this game on.” Best not lose it then.
Three days after that, it’s a trip to Everton in the Carabao Cup. After so many years without silverware and three semi-final defeats last season, best not lose that one either. All told, this is a massive week for Man Utd. Although, truth be told, we’ve said that once or twice this season already too.
Still, on the next instalment of United’s 2020/21 magical mystery tour, they’re off to a flier, but United so far this season have been more rollercoaster than runaway train. Hold on tight, because we’ll find out soon enough just what they really are.
“We weren’t in a good place on Sunday night [against Southampton] on Sunday night and rightly so because I didn’t enjoy that, I didn’t enjoy watching my team, it was very unlike us.
“So I think Ole and his coaching staff and the players would accept that we were going to try and make it competitive tonight and show a reaction… In a lot of ways, it was [more like Sheffield United]. It was front foot, it was aggressive, [but] we’re disappointed with the goals we’ve conceded.”
Chris Wilder’s men looked a shadow of their former selves after a 3-0 dismissal by Southampton at the weekend. A reaction was needed and it was the daunting prospect of Man Utd with their winning away form to come.
But a team more closely resembling the Blades of old walked onto the pitch on Thursday. In the first half in particular, Sheffield United matched Man Utd with Oliver Burke and David McGoldrick shining up front after coming back into the side.
It was the pair that linked up for the opening goal, Burke snatching the ball from Dean Henderson’s feet, poking it back for McGoldrick to sweep home. The striker then did well to head home Sheffield United’s second, albeit with a bit of a helping hand from Victor Lindelof’s face.
Yes, there were three goals conceded but don’t forget, they also did so against Man Utd at Bramall Lane last season when they snatched a late equaliser. They couldn’t quite summon the same spirit this time around – Henderson not quite going the whole hog for his former side to allow Lys Mousset a late equaliser – but the fight, desire and a glimmer of quality was there.
With the busy Christmas period coming up, let’s hope that starts getting turned into vital points so save the Blades’ season.
When last season was temporarily halted by the outbreak of Covid-19, Aston Villa were heading for relegation, chiefly because of their leaky defence.
But during the enforced break, manager Dean Smith and his coaching staff, including former Chelsea and England centre-back John Terry, went to work with the players on the training ground, and with spectacular results.
As when Villa returned to action in June, they were a different animal, far harder to score against and it was that improvement at the back that went a long way towards keeping the club in the Premier League.
And the team have continued that defensive solidity so far this season, with Thursday’s latest shutout at home to Burnley their sixth clean sheet already this season, the most of any top-flight side.
The debate has been raging nationally for some time now as to who is the best goalkeeper in England, but once again Burnley’s Nick Pope showed at Villa Park why his name is always in the argument.
The giant Clarets No 1 was in unbeatable form in the Midlands, producing a number of brilliant stops to keep the home side at bay, while at the same time making everything he did look ridiculously easily, which is the sign of a world-class goalkeeper.
The ‘keeper’s best moment came when he fingertipped Anwar El Ghazi’s curling first-half free-kick on to the bar on his way to a 31st Premier League clean sheet for the club.
And that is the second-most by an English shot-stopper after guess who? Yes, the man he will be trying to replace as England No 1 at next summer’s European championship, Jordan Pickford, who has managed 34 top-flight shutouts.
Are post-match stats worth the link they are published on?
On Tuesday night, West Brom drew at Man City despite boasting just 23 per cent of possession and facing 26 shots. On Wednesday, Tottenham had only 24 per cent of possession at Liverpool and faced 17 shots. And on Thursday night, Burnley, fresh from winning at Arsenal on Sunday with just 35 per cent of possession and having their only shot on target saved, took a draw against an Aston Villa side which dominated proceedings to the effect of taking 27 shots on goal but failed to score with any of them.
All of which meant everything and nothing. West Brom’s hierarchy may even had those sobering match stats in mind when they responded to the indignity of only taking a point at Man City by sacking their manager. Tottenham’s manager, on the other hand, glossed over the same set of numbers to argue his side were better than Liverpool on the night despite their opponents’ numerical dominance, while Burnley, hailed for their win at Arsenal despite doing so little against ten men for 30 minutes, will presumably now be described as fortunate for taking a point at Villa. Which, of course, they were.
But the point has lingered throughout the week that football’s always-curious relationship with statistics, particularly the post-match kind, is now more curiouser than ever. Embraced on one night, discarded and ignored the next. It’s why three more-or-less identical post-match figures can draw such remarkably divergent narratives.
As for Burnley, the relief of the week has been tangible progression in the league table and escape from the relegation zone. Unbeaten in their last three games, they have frustrated and denied Everton, Arsenal and Aston Villa in turn. It’s been an impressive turnaround since they took a 5-0 thrashing at Man City at the end of November. Speaking of which, what happened that night? It’s interesting to note in retrospect that Burnley only faced six shots on target at City and had nine shots of their own. Based on this week’s commentary, they must have played pretty well. Indeed, the post-match stats seem quite insistent that they played better when losing 5-0 than they did when winning 1-0 or drawing 0-0.
Everything and nothing.