The vast majority of football managers would make excellent poker players because of the ability to give nothing away and keep their cards close to their chests. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems no exception.
Despite the fact his United side are well and truly in the mix at the top as this hectic season reaches halfway, Solskjaer has refused to admit we’re in a title challenge.
Roberto Mancini had ruled out Manchester City’s chances long before their late act of derring-do in 2012, so too Brendan Rodgers with Liverpool in 2014. Claudio Ranieri never admitted to the fact his Leicester City might just do the impossible until he had the trophy firmly in his mitts – although to be fair, the charismatic Italian certainly wasn’t the only one in that regard.
Leicester’s triumph was the most remarkable since Nottingham Forest’s against-the-odds title in 1978 but Solskjaer, relegated with Cardiff, would emerge as a more unlikely league winning boss than even the veteran journeyman Ranieri.
Downplaying your side’s prospects is the sensible, well-trodden path for unfancied managers and underdog teams. Mancini, Rodgers and Ranieri were all tasked with the seismic challenge of breaking title droughts. City had not been champions for 44 years, Liverpool 20-odd and Leicester had never won the thing.
There is a different dynamic here, though, with United’s monopoly of 13 titles in 20 years coupled with the steep rapidity of our post-Sir Alex decline. It may have come long before my time, but this in-between era strikes me as eerily similar to when Wilf McGuinness faced another almost impossible job of filling the void left by a legendary, visionary and pioneering Scotsman in Matt Busby.
Not since the rank outsiders 5,000/1 victory have a side led the way on as a few points as United this time. Leicester had 39 points in 2015-16 after 19 games. United reached 40 with three points at Craven Cottage on Wednesday. History suggests the average points tally of title-winning sides at the halfway stage over the last decade is between 41 and 49. For context, Manchester City had 55 on their way to a century in 2017-18. Last season, Liverpool had the same. In United’s first post-Sir Alex season, we had 34 points after 19 games, seven off the leaders and in sixth place. In the seven full calendar years since our last title, the points tally of the eventual champions at halfway read: 41 (Man City), 46 (Chelsea), 39 (Leicester), 49 (Chelsea), 55 (City), 51 (City again) and 55 (Liverpool).
In our last two title-winning season of 2010/11 and 2012/12 we had 45 and 46 points respectively. On average, you wouldn’t expect to see a side with 37 points leading the way at this stage. In the last four seasons, United wouldn’t be anywhere near.The average position for a side on the same points in the same timeframe is somewhere between seventh and fourth. When Sir Alex’s side beat Newcastle in vintage United fashion on the Boxing Day of 2012, United moved on to 46 points after 19 games. That was, of course, the last time we won it, finishing up on 89.
Although there is a case to be had that this side boasts better pound-for-pound quality than that one, these trends and numbers perhaps prove it is slightly behind the curve.
All this would suggest the Reds are currently overachieving. For a massive club with a storied and illustrious history, illuminated by some of the the greatest palacial talents the game has ever seen, even the very idea of such a notion perhaps seems nonsensical. Especially when you consider a lofty position atop the summit once would have been taken for granted, seen as a rite of passage as we reigned supreme over English football for the best part of three decades.
But yet such has been the extent of United’s malaise, these lofty heights now come as gloriously unexpected, given the extent of our chronic post-Ferguson malaise. Perhaps even Solskjaer himself did not see foresee his side’s rise to the Premier League pinnacle.
But, of course, this is not an ordinary season. It is the season of deserted stadia, no handshakes and games every night. I don’t know who will win the title but one thing is already clear – no one is running away with it. Aston Villa will go joint second if they win their three games in hand and Everton are only two points behind should they do likewise. Both of these scenarios show just what a crazy, unpredictable and extraordinary Covid-era campaign this has been in a season like no other. As many as eight club will consider themselves as having a genuine shot at winning it.
After underachieving for much of last season until a late, post-lockdown rally restored the equilibrium, Solskjaer is in danger of overachieving by daring to knock Liverpool off their perch. Not even the rose-tinted specs of Gary Neville could have possibly foreseen United having more points – and wins – in the league than the champions at this stage.
Even when the Reds secured a last-gasp third-placed finish, such was the yawning chasm between us and Liverpool that any thought of a title challenge seemed far from the minds of even the most ardent Red. 2020-21 was supposed to be the season in which United closed the gap, reeling in the two heavyweights above them before looking to push for the league in 2021-22, Solskjaer’s third full season at the wheel. Year one: top four. Year two: Get closer. Year three: Push for the title or even win it. That would have been the rough roadmap, the blueprint, for Solskjaer to follow when he was appointed. Instead, we’re a year ahead of where we should be and its almost as if having to witness Liverpool storm to that 19th title has been seen as a personal insult by Solskjaer and this group of players.
There is a strong argument that despite the Reds proud history as a serial title winning juggernaut, at the moment the side have surpassed both expectation and recent record to merely be in contention.