Manchester United are back.
Their 3-0 win over Aston Villa might have looked routine – Villa is sinking towards relegation, after all – but it signified so much more.
It proved beyond a skerrick of doubt that this side is a proper Manchester United team. 17 games unbeaten in all competitions (10 in the league), with plenty of goals to boot. Youngsters storming into the side and cementing their place on the team sheet. Genuine superstars bossing the centre of the park. And with penalties being handed out like gloves and face masks, no wonder rival fans joke that it seems Fergie is back in charge of Old Trafford.
Those halcyon days aren’t quite back, at least not yet. But there’s a sense around the club that they’re not far away.
They weren’t far off a place in the League Cup final, losing to their Manchester City rivals 3-1 in the semi-final first leg before winning 1-0 in the return fixture. That was in January – the turning point of a remarkable season.
Since then, Mason Greenwood has broken into the team and broken plenty of records in the process. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have both hit their stride. Paul Pogba has been revitalised. And – crucial to it all – Bruno Fernandes arrived and quickly found himself the heart of the Manchester United team.
He is the centre, the core, the focal point around which each of the Red Devils orbit.
He frees Paul Pogba from the crushing pressure of creating all of United’s chances. Pogba responded against Villa with his first goal since the 13th of April … last year.
Pogba, who looked for all money like he would leave, now hints at staying.
After the Villa victory, Pogba said: “We talk before the game, in training, Manchester is a big club and we want to keep the level up always.
“The performances of the past few weeks are Manchester United. We have to keep working, there is a lot to do.”
Few would’ve imagined him saying that before COVID-19 rode into town. Then again, few anticipated United to reach the level of recent weeks.
The Villa match was the fourth consecutive league game won by a margin of three or more goals. No team in the Premier League has ever done so – not since Liverpool in October 1987 has such a streak been achieved.
Individuals are notching records too.
Since arriving from Sporting Lisbon in January, Fernandes’ start has been blistering. Seven goals and six assists in his first 10 Premier League games. No player has ever bettered that goal involvement.
Greenwood – with his complete comfort with the ball at either foot – now has 16 goals in all competitions. His goal against Villa made it three straight games in which he has found the net. He is just the fourth player aged 18 or younger to do so in the Premier League (following in the footsteps of Michael Owen no less).
Alongside him, Rashford and Martial comprise one of the most exciting forward lines in England if not the world. They now boast 56 goals in all competitions this campaign – more than Liverpool’s star trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.
It is obvious on the stats sheets, but even more evident in the buoyant mood of the players. The team is, truly, United once more.
Even goalkeeper David De Gea, who has been slated for his individual struggles in recent weeks, could not find a negative word after the match: “We are in a very good way. Now I feel we are a team. Everyone is on the same way, everyone wants to win, to help and I am really happy.”
Solskjaer does not hide the fact that the dour dressing room he inherited – and was present even in the first half of this season – is a much-changed place.
“It’s a different team to the one he (Pogba) left when he was injured. The focus, the attitude, everything is miles better in that dressing room.”
With four games to play, United sit fifth, one point behind Leicester and just two shy of Chelsea. Fifth would be enough to secure Champions League football if Manchester City fail to overturn their European ban, though that is hardly assured.
Manchester United will next face Southampton, Crystal Palace, and West Ham, before a final-day blockbuster against Leicester.
A top-four finish is well within reach, and would be an impressive result for the season given their poor start.
But as Pogba said, Manchester United is a ‘big club’ – and trophies are demanded. An FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea looms large.
In the Europa League, they beat Austrian side LASK 5-0 in the first leg of the Round of 16. The tournament will be shortened in the wake of the global epidemic, with quarters and semis to be single-leg affairs instead of the usual home-and-away format. It will be more of a shootout than a slog to the finish line – but who would bet against United’s red-hot attack in current form?
Pogba said: “This year we have two goals: to go for the Europa League and the FA Cup. So, we focus on that.
“We didn’t win the Premier League, that’s the standard.
“We didn’t win anything this year, so obviously we have to keep working. There’s a lot to do. A lot.”
He’s right. The defence has been good, but not Premier League champions good. De Gea has been shaky, though Dean Henderson has put his hand up for that position courtesy of a career-best season on loan with Sheffield United. Harry Maguire has been unbeatable at times but looked lost at others. Pogba’s own contract situation still needs to be resolved.
But confidence has returned to the side, that trademark swagger of a team that believes in its own extraordinary history, its unshakeable destiny.
Seven whole years after the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson departed, United is back.
Can they challenge for the Premier League title next season? Don’t rule it out.