Manchester United moved into the top four for the first time since the opening day of the season with their 3-0 win over Fulham on Saturday.
Paul Pogba scored twice and Anthony Martial was also on target at Craven Cottage as United secured their eighth Premier League win in nine games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The victory sent United into fourth place, above Chelsea who face a daunting trip to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City on Super Sunday, continuing their remarkable resurgence.
Manchester United were languishing in sixth place – 11 points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and eight behind Arsenal – when Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho following the 3-1 loss to Liverpool in December.
But they have barely put a foot wrong since then, taking 25 points from a possible 27, their only slip-up coming at home to Burnley, when they had to come back from two goals down to draw.
They now sit a point ahead of Chelsea, who go into their meeting with City as underdogs on Super Sunday, and four ahead of Arsenal, who face Huddersfield on Saturday afternoon.
Manchester United set the tone for what was to come with their 5-1 win over Cardiff on December 22. Having only won one of their previous six Premier League games under Jose Mourinho, United were a team transformed. The emphatic victory was doubly satisfying as it came at the same time as Chelsea’s 1-0 loss at home to Leicester.
United won their first four games under Solskjaer, scoring 14 goals, but the 1-0 victory away to Tottenham at Wembley on January 13 showed they could do it against the top teams. It also put them level on points with fifth-placed Arsenal, who were beaten 1-0 by West Ham a day earlier.
Marcus Rashford scored the winner against Tottenham
Even United’s first setback under Solskjaer felt like a minor triumph.
They seemed to be heading towards their first defeat at home to Burnley, but Pogba’s penalty halved the deficit in the 87th minute before Victor Lindelof struck a dramatic equaliser in stoppage time. A day later, Chelsea lost 4-0 to Bournemouth – leaving United just two points off the top four.
Manchester United have taken more points (25) and scored more goals (23) than any other Premier League side since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment.
Crucially, United did not allow the Burnley draw to halt their momentum, travelling to the King Power Stadium just a few days later and claiming an invaluable 1-0 win courtesy of Marcus Rashford’s early strike. It was also significant because it sent them above Arsenal, who were beaten 3-1 by Manchester City.
No player has been more important to the turnaround than Pogba. The Frenchman’s relationship with Mourinho had become toxic, costing him his starting spot, but Solskjaer, who previously coached him in United’s academy, has been rewarded for placing him at the heart of his team.
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Pogba’s brilliant opener and second-half penalty against Fulham took him to eight goals in nine Premier League appearances under Solskjaer. He has also provided five assists. It represents a huge improvement on his total of three goals and three assists in 14 appearances under Mourinho.
Pogba is relishing some attacking freedom under Solskjaer and he is not the only one. Martial has shone, producing his best performance yet against Fulham, and so too has Rashford. The Englishman, relishing an opportunity to play in his favoured central striking role, has scored six goals in nine appearances under Solskjaer.
Of course, United’s attacking players could not have done it without the defensive security behind them. Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic have shone at the base of midfield, and there has also been huge improvement in defence, with Lindelof, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling all impressing at centre-back. The clean sheet at Craven Cottage was their fourth under Solskjaer.
Can they stay there?
If United are to remain in the top four come the end of the season, much will depend on their squad players as well as the key men. Solskjaer has a hectic run of fixtures coming up, including Champions League games against Paris Saint-Germain and an FA Cup tie with Chelsea, so it was no great surprise that there were six line-up changes against Fulham.
Manchester United is facing a crucial run of fixtures
According to Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, Solskjaer is hoping to strike the right balance by using selection techniques he learned under Sir Alex Ferguson.
“We played under a genius in Sir Alex Ferguson,” said Neville. “I witnessed it firsthand towards the end of my career, where he would tell me the two or three games that I was getting a month or six weeks in advance, so I could plan for them. Most managers say the next game is the only one they think about, but he wasn’t like that.