Manchester United have the chance to go top of the Premier League this week when they play their outstanding game in hand against Burnley at Turf Moor on Tuesday night.
The fixture was originally supposed to be played on the opening weekend of the season, but United’s involvement in the latter stages of the delayed 2019/20 Europa League mini-tournament saw them awarded an extra week off at the start of the new campaign.
As things stand, United are behind leaders Liverpool on goal difference alone. Both sides have 33 points, with United actually winning more games in fewer attempts – 10 from 16 compared to Liverpool’s nine in 17. Even just a point will send Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team top of the table, although they will be determined to take all three and keep up their recent momentum.
In the Premier League, United are unbeaten since 1 November and have taken 26 points from the last 30 available to them since then to fly up the standings.
For United, the improvement this season is there to see. They were 16th after losing their opening game at home against Crystal Palace and were still as low as 15th nearly six weeks later when they lost a third game in six against Arsenal, which remains their last league defeat.
It is evidence that the project which started afresh when Solskjaer was appointed permanent manager in March 2019 is working. Progress hasn’t always been fast, performances and tactical systems still need to mature and the club has plenty of room for improvement in the transfer market. But there can no question things are far better than how they were even a year ago.
United raced into third last season from lower down thanks to a late flurry of wins in the second half of the campaign, while they were only briefly any higher than sixth during 2018/19 when Jose Mourinho was sacked and Solskjaer took over, initially on an interim basis.
United spent virtually all of the 2017/18 Premier League in second place behind a Manchester City that was breaking records at will. But that campaign was also the last time a United side sat top.
Under Mourinho, United started that season with back-to-back 4-0 wins over West Ham and Swansea to go into first place. They stayed there with a 2-0 win over Leicester in their third game, but momentum briefly faltered with a 2-2 draw against Stoke to begin September.
United returned to winning ways a week later with a 4-0 thrashing of Everton, but with an identical record to Manchester City by then, they were forced down into second place on alphabetical order.
Three more wins kept United level pegging, behind only on goal difference, but a draw against Liverpool and then a disastrous defeat to newly promoted Huddersfield handed their neighbours an advantage they never relinquished. City were so relentless that season, winning 18 games in a row between late August and late December that the title race was over by Christmas.
It is three years and four months since Manchester United were last top of the Premier League in September 2017. Now is their chance to get back there. Back then, they fell away within a few weeks. This time, they have clawed their way up and it means more at this stage of a season.