QandA: Are Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United title contenders?

Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time winner over Wolves on Tuesday night lifted Manchester United to second in the Premier League, just two points behind champions Liverpool.

It is only a few short weeks since an early Champions League exit made Ole Gunnar Solskjaer favourite to be the first top-flight manager to lose his job, but that seems a long time ago with United now the form team in the league and firmly in the title race.

Solskjaer tried to play down expectations after Tuesday’s win, but here the PA news agency considers whether his side should really be seen as contenders.

Are they really good enough?

Though United have been piling up the points in recent weeks, they have not always passed the eye test. Their first-half display at Old Trafford on Tuesday night was criticised by pundits for being sluggish, and there was certainly an element of luck in Rashford’s deflected strike three minutes into time added on. The results have been hugely encouraging, but United have rarely controlled the games they have won with a fair amount of good fortune helping them along the way. Winning ugly can be the key to any successful season, but it is only sustainable for so long and United still have much work to do on the performance side to show this run can continue.

Is there enough strength in depth?

Almost inevitably, Bruno Fernandes was credited with the assist for Rashford’s winner. It meant the Portuguese finished 2020 with 32 goals or assists in 29 Premier League appearances, with his arrival last January having been key in transforming United’s outlook. But their reliance on Fernandes and a small handful of others highlights a weakness for United after the club failed to land many of Solskjaer’s key targets in the summer. Paul Scholes recently said United’s title hopes rested on the backs of a group of “12, 13, possibly 14 players” who were capable of delivering it as fringe players have performed poorly when given their chance. United have returned to an old trait from the Sir Alex Ferguson days of late with late goals proving key – something Solskjaer has put down to their physical condition. But in this strange season, facing such a congested fixture list, it will be a huge ask of those core players to see the job through without greater assistance.

The Pogba dilemma

Manchester United v Wolverhampton Wanderers – Premier League – Old Trafford
Manchester United v Wolverhampton Wanderers – Premier League – Old Trafford

Paul Pogba played a major role in Tuesday’s win, with Solskjaer pushing the Frenchman further forward in the second half as United began to build the pressure on Wolves. Phil Neville has said Pogba’s recent form could be good enough to lead United to the title. But as ever with Pogba there is a considerable sideshow that accompanies his talent. His agent Mino Raiola still appears determined to engineer a second exit from Old Trafford and, although that is not expected before the summer at the earliest, the noise will surely ramp up during the coming transfer window. It is not a new distraction for United to deal with, but still an unhelpful one.

Is this form sustainable?

The festive period is a traditional marker in the title race but, as already noted, this is no ordinary campaign. Teams might normally be midway through their Premier League slate by now but instead Tuesday night was only United’s 15th league game of the season, with Solskjaer’s men still playing catch-up after their late start due to European action in the summer. It is a point the Norwegian has made himself as he plays down title talk, saying he does not want to pay too much attention to the table until the spring.

Will Europe play a role?

💙 Real Sociedad or Manchester United? ❤️

— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) December 14, 2020

The Champions League exit was not the end of United’s European adventures this season as they now drop into the Europa League – their campaign resuming away to Real Sociedad on February 18. The Thursday night fixtures are not the disrupting force they once were and, depending on the focus given to the competition by Solskjaer, they could arguably be less demanding than a continued tilt at the Champions League. But nevertheless it could still be a significant factor in how the second half of the season plays out for United.