Manchester United not only thrashed Southampton nine-nil this week, but they showed they have the nasty ruthlessness required to be Premier League champions – maybe not this year, but soon.
As the saying goes, no-one knows how an elephant gets on top of a tree but everyone knows it won’t be there for long.
Many have said that United will have the same fate as the elephant, now leading the league for the first time since 2013. The question is: is it just a spike in form or are Manchester United here to stay?
Arguably the player of the season, Bruno Fernandes, has dragged United out of the grave so many times before. Arriving from Sporting Lisbon for €55 million (A$86.7 million) in January of last season, he has picked up where he left off and already has 18 goal contributions this season. He is incredibly integral to the way Manchester United play. Maybe he’s even too integral
This season Fernandes leads his team for total carries (821), touches (1380), progressive passes (136), expected assists (6.4), expected goals (9.0), goal-creating action (16) and shot-creating action (93). He leads all these vital attacking stats by a considerable distance, showing how over-reliant Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is on his talisman.
Should he get an injury or should go through a cold run of form, they are going to struggle to create chances, as they rely heavily on him.
A damming stat that backs up the claim is that he has been passed the ball the most of any player in the United team (1241), with the second most being Marcus Rashford (950).
No doubt Bruno has the quality. He is far and away the best player in that team and is the talisman that could lead them to potential league glory. However, how risky is it to be so reliant on one player that your whole system hinges upon him?
Dominating or overperforming?
Based on expectations at the start of the season, it’s obvious that Manchester United are overperforming. Very few people would have had them leading the league at the end of January, so this has come as a shock to a lot of people. However, they aren’t overperforming based only on preseason expectations; they are overperforming based on the performances in games.
Based on expected points Manchester United are fourth in the table and sit on 32 points rather than 40. Based on expected goals they have scored four fewer goals and conceded two more – and without penalties they would have scored four fewer than that.
Not only are they are massively overperforming, but they are getting lucky in some games. Granted, you have to make your own luck, but eventually it will run out and they will have to develop a system able to break teams down without relying on one player.
Can they do it?
Can they win the league? Of course they can. But will they? That’s a different question.
Many have said that they are one Fernandes injury away from slumping in form, and we only need to look at what happened with Virgil van Dijk to see what an injury can do to a team.
Crashing out the Champions League in disappointing fashion, displaying Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactical naivety in the process, is a slight blip in that record. Being completely outclassed by Manchester City in the EFL Cup semi-final is another blip. However, they have been ridiculed all season and have maintained a sustained bid for the title. They are well and truly in the running for it.
But with the likes of Manchester City getting back to their best and Liverpool still lingering as well as Leicester looking to one-up their famous title-winning campaign, it’s going to be a hotly contested race for the major crown in May.