Both caretaker manager Michael Carrick and club captain Harry Maguire said that Manchester United’s great defensive platform allowed them to beat Villarreal on Tuesday night.
Summer signings Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho grabbed late goals to seal their passage to the last 16, with only a point needed at home to Young Boys to secure top spot.
After a tricky first half – and I mean tricky to watch because it was certainly not a display of top level football – United came out with a resilience and solidity which has rarely been seen this season.
Carrick’s introductions of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford helped swing the game in United’s favour, even if the duo are overqualified to only be super subs.
The last 25 minutes were among the most impressive of the Red Devils’ season, and despite such a disappointing campaign so far, it reinforced what people already knew – there is quality in this team, it’s just been so long since a top-level manager was at the helm.
It was a pretty common assumption that United had the talent to be contending for the Premier League title, even before Ronaldo’s return at the end of the summer window. The foundations had been built last season, and it’s not a coincidence that most of the key performers from the 2020/21 campaign have yet to hit their own personal heights this year.
Maguire and Luke Shaw were deservedly named in the Euro 2020 team of the tournament and Gary Neville attested that they’re simply suffering from a burnout following such a whirlwind summer. The former hasn’t looked fit all season anyway, largely because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer kept rushing him back from injury.
Beyond them, Donny van de Beek has long been waiting to show why Real Madrid were so desperate to sign him from Ajax.
Paul Pogba does have the quality to play for a title contender despite the circus of noise that’s surrounded him in his second Old Trafford spell.
And maybe most importantly, United have the strongest depth of choices in attacking area, an almost perfect blend of youth and experience, pace and power, chiselled technique and diamonds in the rough.
Part of Solskjaer’s legacy was about leaving United in a better place than where he found them, broken and completely discombobulated by Jose Mourinho’s reign. It was a mistake to hand him a full-time contract, but at least he completed his remit (before nearly ruining it again).
Thomas Tuchel’s 11 months in charge of Chelsea have proved that any top team with even a smidge of talent can turn their fortunes around with the right person leading them. That mid-season managerial change saw the Blues conquer Europe.
That’s not to say the right appointment – Mauricio Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers, Erik ten Hag, whoever – will bring such instant success to United, but the semblance of a qualified coach will go a long way to arresting their recent slump.
They have the quality, but need the right vision to bring everything together – they cannot throw the season away by simply appointing an interim manager.