If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been frustratingly reluctant to talk up Manchester United’s chances of a title challenge, it is because he knows how quickly – and drastically – things can change. You only have to look at this time last year, and this very fixture.
That dismal 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford 12 months ago seemed a defining performance for Solskjaer. It fully displayed how far behind United were, but also the extent of the depths they could sink under the Norwegian. The entire month of January 2020 seemed to just be his regime levelling out to the point a sacking was becoming inevitable. Disquiet grew among the players, who were again questioning his approach, and tactics. A nadir came in the home defeat to Burnley, the third of four in the league that month to go with the League Cup elimination to City.
It was a nadir, however, because it has never got so bad since.
Solskjaer is currently overseeing one of the best attacks in Europe. It is why talk of a title challenge – and maybe even “21 in 21” as they potentially face a race for history with Liverpool – has grown.
Solskjaer could yet make people – some of them not too far from these pages – look very foolish.
It’s just this season has also had a habit of making any predictions look foolish too. Look at Jose Mourinho’s recent fall. It sometimes feels like very little can be relied upon.
So, the wonder is how reliable United are, and how sustainable this form is. It is why this game against City will tell a fair bit, and why the game goes way beyond the League Cup in importance.
One of the elements still lacking from this season so far has been a big win against a big rival. Victory on Wednesday, and a step closer to an actual trophy, would be a significant psychological boost at a time when the team’s confidence is visibly growing.
There are some in the game, and around the club, who still question United in that regard. They clearly have something, although they haven’t yet been completely convincing. One of the lines that has done the rounds is that they’re “a vibes team”.
It is why they must take the step from winning streaks to something much sturdier, and display real mettle.
Figures at Liverpool have meanwhile drawn a comparison with their 2013-14 season, and a talented but unreliable team being elevated by a star in career form. It is no exaggeration to say Fernandes is having the effect of Luis Suarez.
So many knife-edge matches only reinforce the comparison. They were a feature of that Liverpool season.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that Brendan Rodgers’ impact in that campaign now seems much better than had been dismissed at the time, and that is part of the reason Solskjaer deserves credit.
There are still some senior players who say the coaching could be better – two were excited about the prospect of Mauricio Pochettino, another by Max Allegri – but even those players like Solskjaer, and it’s certainly true he responds to situations well. He has fostered a spirit in his team that has meant they have never collapsed after setbacks that would have destroyed other managers. The responses to the 6-1 and the Champions League elimination are cases in point.
As one dressing room source says, “even those who are unsure about Solskjaer are willing him to do well”.
Pogba has arguably been even better than Bruno of late. Either way, everything is coming together for United right now.
Solskjaer just knows how quickly it can unravel. This has been the kind of season where complexions can dramatically change in the space of three games. That has already happened to Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool in the last few weeks.
United have not felt it for a while. It might be their turn – or it might be their turn for something else. A test like this will tell a lot.