12:58 PM ETRob DawsonCorrespondent
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a fan of statistics and he can tell you that his Manchester United players are running further, creating more and giving up fewer chances than at any point during his two years in charge at Old Trafford. But really there are only a couple of numbers he needs to call on to show the progress his team is making.
On New Year’s Day 2020, United were fifth in the table, 24 points behind leaders Liverpool. On the first day of 2021, with a win over Aston Villa, they will be joint-top with Liverpool.They might not win the title this season but they have at least given themselves a chance.
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Solskjaer, Marcus Rashford, and David De Gea were all put in front of the television cameras after the narrow 1-0 win over Wolves and all played down the prospect of a challenge in the new year. But the truth, whether they want to admit it or not, is that positive results from their next two league games against Aston Villa on Friday and Liverpool at Anfield on Jan. 17 will put United right in the thick of the race. Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge the last time supporters were still talking about the title in January.
Solskjaer, winner of six titles as a player under Ferguson, knows better than most that a sniff of a challenge isn’t enough at a club of United’s size and ambition. Instead, he will have to win it before all the doubters are silenced.
He also knows that it doesn’t take much to rock the boat at Old Trafford and while there’s a definite sense of optimism around the club heading into the New Year, it can disappear very quickly. United ended 2019 on a run of nine games unbeaten before winning just two of their next seven to leave Solskjaer facing more questions about his job. Even as recently as Dec. 8 and that calamitous Champions League exit at the hands of RB Leipzig, the Norwegian was being asked in news conferences about his future.
Solskjaer, though, has remained adamant he is the right man while, behind the scenes, club bosses have insisted the hire-and-fire approach to managers since Ferguson retired in 2013 is over and that the 47-year-old will be given more time and more money.
He is not the type to publicly criticise the owners or senior management but sources have told ESPN he has made it clear the squad needs at least another forward and central defender before they can consistently match Liverpool and Manchester City.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has Man United contending again but in order to end speculation over his future, first he must deliver a title. Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
There remains a feeling among many supporters that the club is more interested in investing in the squad when they’re trying to get back into the lucrative Champions League rather than taking the final step towards winning trophies. Regardless of the progress made this season fans will still expect funds to be made available for new players next summer, even during the financial uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic.
In a New Year’s message to supporters ahead of Villa’s visit, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward promised more investment in the squad and those words will need to be backed up if Solskjaer is going to turn this team into a consistent challenger for the biggest trophies at home and in Europe.
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“The team has coped well in challenging circumstances and at the time of writing, we have won more points-per-game since Project Restart last June than any other Premier League club,” said Woodward. “We also have four more wins and nine more goals than at the same time last season. There are many positive statistics like these showing the progress made under Ole in the past year. But they tell only part of the story.
“Just as important is the work we see being done behind the scenes to build a winning culture consistent with the club’s traditions of attacking football played by youthful, hard-working teams fusing homegrown talent with top-class recruits.
The statistics, the mood, and the Premier League table all show progress is being made at Man United but the aim must be to turn it into something more tangible. As Woodward noted: “As always, our priority is to win trophies and, with the team going into the New Year competing on four fronts, we are optimistic about the path ahead in 2021.”
A first trophy — perhaps a first title — are realistic goals in 2021 and Solskjaer won’t need reminding that the only statistic that really matters for a United manager is his silverware count.