EPL

Burnley v Man United: Red Devils aiming to end long absence from Premier League summit

By Sports Desk January 12, 2021

Ordinarily, Burnley v Manchester United wouldn't be the sort of match that receives much attention from those without a vested interest in either team.

A somewhat local encounter it may be, Burnley perhaps aren't – with all due respect – the sort of team that attracts swathes of neutrals.

Nevertheless, Tuesday's fixture at Turf Moor holds genuine significance for United as it provides them with the opportunity to go top of the Premier League.

Granted, it may only be January 12 and we aren't quite at the halfway point of the season, but such an opportunity represents real progress.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men go into the match – which was postponed at the start of the campaign due to United's run to the Europa League semi-finals – level on points with the Liverpool, who they host at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Once the leading power in the Premier League under Alex Ferguson, United have not been at such a level for a while – could this be the start of a sustained resurgence?

A long time coming

In Solskjaer's pre-match news conference, he initially downplayed the importance of going top in January, suggesting such matters were trivial until March or April.

Yet, he also made a point of telling the team that it is time United establish themselves as title challengers again.

It would be generous to suggest they have been worthy of that distinction at any point since Ferguson's retirement in 2013.

Their highest finish during this time was second in 2017-18, though United finished 19 points adrift of a devastating Manchester City side that looked like champions-elect for much of the season as they amassed a record 100 points.

Indeed, United have been top of the table for a grand total of 51 days in the post-Ferguson era – 41 of those were under Jose Mourinho, eight with Louis van Gaal and just two during David Moyes' ill-fated reign.

The last time they finished the day top of the Premier League table was in August 2018, though considering their 2-1 win over Leicester City was the sole game on the very first day of the season and they did not retain their place for 24 hours, one has to ask whether that even counts.

But what most highlights the strides Solskjaer has made is the fact that none of those previous 51 days at the summit were this far into a season.

Of course, Burnley could yet pull off an upset and United may finish the season without ever sitting in top spot – or this could be a watershed moment for them and Solskjaer.

The Fernandes factor

Every team needs its talisman and even the most ardent United supporter will surely admit any title challenge would be impossible without Bruno Fernandes.

The Portugal midfielder's influence since joining United at the end of the January 2020 transfer window has been nothing short of remarkable.

While Liverpool have certainly not been without personnel issues, Fernandes has more than played his part in bridging the gap.

When we look at the Premier League table during Fernandes' time in England, United sit top with 65 points from 30 games, three clear of Liverpool who have played a game extra.

United's 19 wins is a league high and their three defeats is the lowest over the same time period, while only Liverpool (66) have scored more than their 63.

They might already be way out in front without the defensive issues that have intermittently reared their head, though few would accuse the team of lacking character – United have claimed 25 points from losing positions since Fernandes' first game.

'On the road is where I really come alive'

If there's one thing Solskjaer's Man United and The Office character David Brent have in common, it's that they relish life on the road.

United's record away from home over the past year has been in a league of its own, as they are unbeaten in 14 games away from Old Trafford.

It's also away from home where their never-say-die attitude has been most prominent. They seldom see a foregone conclusion when they fall behind, with 20 of their 36 points on the road coming from being at least a goal down. That's double any other team.

If you want the rainbow, you've got to put up with the rain, but thankfully for United they are yet to slip up on their travels since February.

They are averaging 2.6 points per away game, with no other side managing more than 1.7.

Solskjaer won't be counting on a free ride at Turf Moor on Tuesday, but he will surely expect at least the point they need to go top.

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