With Manchester United facing Brighton at Old Trafford this weekend and Arsenal playing Chelsea at the Emirates, it is incredible to think that a top four finish that seemed almost impossible just three weeks ago would be in United’s own hands if both matches result in home wins.
Such an outcome would put both United and Arsenal on 44 points, just three behind Chelsea, who come to Old Trafford on the Reds’ penultimate home game of the season.
Of course, there are a lot of matches left to play, but United have only one away game against a top six team – the six-pointer with Arsenal – between now and the end of the season. Chelsea, on the other hand, must travel to the Etihad and Anfield to face Manchester City and Liverpool, while Arsenal have to travel to the Etihad and Wembley to face City and Tottenham. And with Harry Kane potentially facing a spell on the sidelines for Tottenham after limping off at the end of Sunday’s game and Son heading for the UAE to represent South Korea in the Asian Cup, it’s not inconceivable that Spurs will also get drawn into the scrap for places as well.
Whilst we shouldn’t get carried away with ourselves, hearing Paul Pogba say “”Top four is what we want. We have to keep it up” on Sunday tells us that the players are thinking the same way: we belong there and we have the quality to be there. In the first half at Wembley, at times United seemed to outclass Spurs. Of course, it took De Gea’s brilliance to keep the team alive in the second half, but nonetheless, had I been a Tottenham fan, I would have walked away from the game feeling second best.
When the four teams are compared, it is United that have the winning momentum. It is United that have a point to prove. It is United that have nothing to lose. United also have the most strength in depth and in Marcus Rashford, right now, they arguably have the most in-form striker. In fact, restored to his natural striking role, if under Olé Solskjaer’s mentorship, Rashford can learn the secret of being a “natural” goalscorer, who knows? The 21 year old could still end the season with the Golden Boot.
The biggest obstacle to a top four finish for Manchester United remains the defence. Although Victor Lindelof finally seems to be showing the quality and consistency he produced for Benfica and Sweden, those around him are simply not good enough. Phil Jones’ performance at Wembley was another shambolic display. The fact that Spurs had so many attempts was not only his fault; Luke Shaw was caught out of position on a number of occasions, and others occasionally failed to track their man. But whilst the fans love Jones’ full-blooded Terry Butcher-like commitment to every game, lets face it: he and Chris Smalling are simply not good enough to be top four Premier League central defenders. Jones has terrible positional sense, and Smalling is just turned too easily.
With Marcos Rojo back in Argentina, United really need to sign a centre back in this transfer window to ensure they get into the top four. We can’t expect De Gea to save them every time – some shots will simply be unstoppable. I’m sure the powers-that-be know that the cost of failing to qualify for the Champions League would be greater than the cost of a world class centre back, so money is unlikely to be the issue – prising a top player away from his club mid-season is more likely the problem. Come on, Ed, you can do it.
Of course, as I’ve said before, Eric Bailly is another solution. If Olé Solskjaer can get Bailly’s head right, calm him down and get his confidence back, Bailly alongside Lindelof could be the difference between a top four finish and UEFA League mediocrity, or worse. But his sending off against Bournemouth in December did not portend well. “”You err. You reflect. You learn. You grow,” he commented on Instagram after the game. Lets hope so.
With Chris Smalling approaching fitness again, Solskjaer has a dilemma: stick with Jones, and go for passionate-but-error-prone; switch back to Smalling, and go for steady-but-error-prone; or risk Bailly again, and go for genius-but-crazy-prone. For me, book an appointment with the sports psychologist and get Eric back in the line-up ASAP.
Maybe in the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter. It hasn’t mattered in six games under Solskjaer. “You score four, we’ll score five” worked for both Sir Matt and Sir Alex, so there’s no reason it can’t work for Sir* Olé.
* Just a matter of time.