Is Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bringing the good times back to Old Trafford?

By Simon Stone BBC Sport at Old Trafford
Manchester United players celebrate
Manchester United are unbeaten in their past 16 Premier League matches against Aston Villa (W12, D4)

When Manchester United first looked as though they were edging towards ending their 26-year title drought in 1993, their superstitious fans refused to jeopardise it by singing songs about winning the league.

There are no fans at Old Trafford - or anywhere else in the Premier League for that matter - at present. But almost three decades on it is not hard to imagine the same emotions taking hold if there were supporters in the stands.

For United and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, derided, ridiculed and lambasted for the majority of his two years in charge, have got themselves into position of contention, almost when no-one was looking.

Friday's 2-1 victory against Aston Villa took them level with old rivals Liverpool at the top of the Premier League. Apart from the opening weekend of the 2016-17 campaign, that situation has not existed since 2009.

It has created the mouth-watering prospect of a rare meeting between England's two biggest and most successful clubs at Anfield on 17 January, when both can dream of title glory.

Beating a much-improved Villa took United's current unbeaten run in the Premier League to 10 games. Eight of those games have been victories.

The only time United have been on a run of that length, with so many wins, since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 was when Solskjaer first took charge.

Yet it is worth noting that in every single title-winning season under the man who watched these proceedings unfold from his customary seat in the directors' box, United put exactly that kind of sequence together, usually longer and sometimes more than once.

Premier League table graphic
Manchester United and Liverpool sit level on points at the top of the table after 16 games

This was a tense affair. You wouldn't have known it from Solskjaer's demeanour.

When David de Gea plunged to his right to turn away Matty Cash's injury-time strike and even later when Eric Bailly flung himself in the way of Keinan Davis' goal-bound shot, Solskjaer remained the same, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of a jacket zipped right up to cover his mouth.

But those were big moments in a big win. You could tell that by the way three of Solskjaer's coaches nervously paced the technical area as those five minutes of injury time ticked by and goalkeeping chief Richard Hartis bellowed "calm" at the United players, when it was clear he was feeling anything but.

Then there was the way Bailly's team-mates leapt on him at the final whistle, jubilant at the Ivorian for putting his body on the line in the collective cause.

"There's a reason for the colour of my hair," said Solskjaer afterwards, his grey top clearly visible. "We should have played the game out better but we like to do it the hard way."

It was not a surprise Bruno Fernandes was the match-winner. In 30 Premier League appearances since his arrival last January transformed United's fortunes, his penalty was the Portuguese's 33rd goal involvement.

For months it seemed Fernandes was carrying Solskjaer's team.

But it does go deeper. Their squad has a depth few can match. In this of all seasons, that could prove vital. Edinson Cavani was not involved after starting a three-game ban but, as with the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial - United's other goalscorer against Villa - De Gea and Bailly, the Uruguyan has made vital, unrecognised, contributions.

Man Utd have improved immensely in a year - Solskjaer

Then there are those at the top.

At times over the past 24 months, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has been virtually alone in defending the Norwegian, continuing to insist he was the right man for the job when all the evidence suggested otherwise.

With the man widely touted as Solskjaer's replacement, Mauricio Pochettino, preparing to return to the game at Paris St-Germain, Woodward used his new year programme notes to outline what he sees as the bigger picture around his manager - appointed in the first place to perform a 'cultural reboot' after the upheaval of the Jose Mourinho era.

"There are many positive statistics showing the progress made under Ole in the past year but they tell only part of the story," he said.

"Just as important is the work we see being done behind the scenes to build a winning culture consistent with the club's traditions of attacking football played by youthful, hard-working teams fusing homegrown talent with top-class recruits."

To that end, while United sources are predicting a quiet January transfer-wise, one player who is arriving, provided all the post-Brexit paperwork gets done, is 18-year-old Ivorian Amad Diallo.

This is the type of player Solskjaer's United are trying to sign. Youngsters with potential. It is the same with Jadon Sancho even if the figures around the England and Borussia Dortmund winger are substantially higher than the £19m they will spend on Diallo.

Solskjaer said after the game United "have improved quite a lot in a year".

Evidently though, United are not the finished article. There are players Solskjaer would be willing to sell this month for a start - although whether anyone will come up with the wages to tempt Phil Jones, Sergio Romero or Marcos Rojo is another matter. Trickier decisions need to be made around loaning Brandon Williams to Southampton and the future of Jesse Lingard, on the bench against Villa.

A new central defender remains on the shopping list, in addition to a right-sided forward Solskjaer had hoped Sancho would have been by now.

But the doubts that have persisted so long are starting to disappear.

No-one at United will say they are back. But going to Anfield as something close to equals - at least according to the table - shows United are getting there.

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