Manchester United could hardly be further from 22 January right now and that abysmal 2-0 defeat to Burnley, being outplayed, outfought and generally embarrassed by the Clarets at Old Trafford.
There have been plenty of lows in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson years but for some reason that felt like the lowest of all them, perhaps because this was the season things were finally supposed to turn around. Six months in, it appeared to just be another false dawn of shattered hope.
Fast forward to now and all doom and gloom has been wiped away. United are playing well, thriving, one might dare to say, as evidenced by Wednesday night’s comfortable demolition of Sheffield United. The Blades have lost their way since the Premier League restarted but had admirably forced their way into the Champions League conversation in their first 28 games.
United of Manchester seemed to barely break a sweat despite the sweltering conditions and Anthony Martial scored a hat-trick, the first of his career. The team as a whole could easily have scored more, while the Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes got their first proper outing together.
Although Wednesday night was as close to perfect as reasonably possibly, things aren’t perfect for United. There are still things that need to happen before the club will genuinely challenge Liverpool and Manchester City for the Premier League title and individual performances that need to be tweaked. But, generally, things are absolutely going in the right direction.
Things had been alright earlier in the season – United demolished Chelsea on the opening day, for example, beat Tottenham and City in back-to-back games in December and enjoyed some big wins over Norwich and Newcastle. But every step forward always seemed to be followed by at least as many back – losses to Newcastle, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Watford.
That Burnley game was perhaps not a surprise in that sense. Crucially, however, it appears to have served as a lasting wakeup call, unlike others previously. It is as though the mentality in the dressing room has genuinely changed, the cultural reset that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was seeking.
Before Burnley, the players could only turn it on every few games. Now, the squad seems to appreciate that anything other than 100% is not enough to succeed at the level expected.
Solskjaer has made ruthless decisions during that time. Players not up to it are being unmistakably pushed towards the door. Jesse Lingard, regardless of his own bizarre and rather deluded assessment of his ability and status, hasn’t played in the Premier League since.
Nor has Phil Jones, while Andreas Pereira has only started once in the league.
The result is that United are now 13 games unbeaten in all competitions since facing Burnley. They have scored 33 goals in those fixtures and have conceded just three times.
Any unbeaten run in excess of 10 games is impressive, but United’s ought not to be underestimated even more for a number of reasons. Firstly, they have continued it either side of a three-month break when it would have really easy for sharpness and performance level to drop – as has been the case with Sheffield United, who now look like a different team compared to before.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, is the calibre of opposition United have faced.
A 6-0 thrashing of League One’s Tranmere was the exact response the team needed four days after losing to Burnley, but since then United have beaten Manchester City twice and Chelsea. They have also faced Wolves, Tottenham and obviously Sheffield United, all of whom are close and direct rivals in the Premier League hunt for European place.
In short, these aren’t easy games against poor teams that might devalue the unbeaten run.
A 3-0 February win against Watford was a far cry from a 2-0 defeat against the same opposition in December, while Derby County were comfortably seen off in the FA Cup. United have also recorded two 5-0 wins in the last 13 games, both in Europe when struggling could have been easy.
It isn’t just about staying unbeaten in tough games, but winning favourable contests comfortably.
Finally, United have only had all of their best players available for two of those games. Both Marcus Rashford and Pogba were missing for the first 11 games of the current unbeaten run. Now that both are back fit and in the side, things should only improve further.
United aren’t the finished product by any means, but what we’re seeing now suggests the club is at last on the right road that will get them to that point in the not too distant future.