With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer nominated for the Premier League Manager of the Year award, and Rio Ferdinand claiming earlier this week that Man United have overtaken Liverpool, the idea that Red Devils have enjoyed a season of great progression seems to be popular.
A deeper look into some of the statistics for the season doesn’t necessarily support this view however, and raises questions on just how much progress has really been made at Old Trafford over the past 12 months.
From the league table alone, a second place finish is an obvious improvement – albeit having gained only 8 points more than at the end of what was considered a largely disappointing 2019/20 season.
The season also included an unbeaten away campaign for the first time in the club’s history, with 43 away points also surpassing the best record of any United team under Sir Alex Ferguson over a 38 game season. But the record at Old Trafford was only a point away from being Man United’s joint-worst home record for decades and included a loss against Sheffield United – a team who matched the top flight record for the most defeats in a season.
But having topped the table in mid-January and opened up a big advantage over the Christmas league-leaders Liverpool, the final league standings highlighted a big enough gap between the two Manchester clubs to conclude that, rather than being the runners up in a title race, Man United were merely the best of a group of teams that all have a lot of ground to make up in order to mount a serious title challenge next season.
Also, with a big improvement in both performances and results during the 2019/20 season following the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, it’s possible to argue that this season hasn’t seen much progress beyond what was on display during the second half of last season.
Fernandes’ introduction in February 2020 coincided with an unbeaten run over the final 14 games of the season, and an average of 2.29 points-per-game which was higher than the rate of points collected over the same period by runaway champions Liverpool.
That run of games emphasised the consistency that United were capable of achieving, and throughout January 2021, the club appeared well-placed to compete for the title.
But having averaged over 2.1 points per game over the first half of the campaign, results subsequently suffered and saw the rate of points gain drop to less than 1.8 over the second half of the season – on par with the results achieved by Arsenal, and only a point more than was earned by newly-promoted Leeds.
Even with Liverpool’s well-documented difficulties throughout the winter months taken into account, the reigning champions took more points over the second half of the season than Man United.
In cup competitions, hopes of a successful run in the Champions League were over before Christmas and a consolation prize of the Europa League was a possibility until the final, a game in which the performance of the team lacked ambition or intensity – even with key players having been rested in the lead up to the game against Villarreal, who took the trophy after a tense penalty shootout.
Losses to the eventual winners of both the League Cup and FA Cup can’t be overly criticised, but the fact that Man United are now without a trophy in four years ought to be placing some pressure on the team and its manager, given the talent throughout the squad.
Success may yet be closer than it seems, as was the case for Liverpool when key signings of Van Dijk and Alisson made such a difference in the quest for silverware, transforming the team and delivering trophies in the two biggest competitions within two seasons.
But at present, it is hard to see just where United can make up the amount of ground needed to finish ahead of current champions Man City, and with plenty of potential for improvement at both Chelsea and Liverpool next season, United may need some added inspiration over the summer if they really are to be considered as having overtaken the teams immediately below them in this season’s table.