Manchester United could be leading the Premier League midway through a season for the first time in eight years on Tuesday.
Not that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cares too much.
“No one remembers the January league tables,” the United manager said Monday, a day before his team plays away against Burnley with the chance of climbing above Liverpool into first place by avoiding defeat at Turf Moor.
The last time United was top after 17 games of a league campaign, Alex Ferguson was in charge in what proved to be the final season of his long managerial tenure at Old Trafford. United went on to win the 2012-13 title by 11 points.
Since Ferguson retired, United hasn’t added to its record haul of 20 top-division titles, finishing as low down as seventh place one season.
Solskjaer said he believes it is harder to win the league compared to when he was playing under Ferguson from 1996-2007, during which time United was champion six times and faced challenges to its dominance from Arsenal and then Chelsea.
“It’s important for us to start to show ourselves up among the top four,” Solskjaer said. “We have only been top four three times since Sir Alex left, so if we can do that again after finishing third (last season), if you can improve on third, it’s progress.
“When I played, it was a different ball game. We were really disappointed if we didn’t win the league. We were third once, and most of the time we were challenged by one team. Now the league is different, so many other teams can challenge and look at themselves as candidates to challenge the top teams.”
Indeed, four points separate the current top seven in the league approaching the midpoint of the campaign. West Ham, in 10th place, is only seven points behind Liverpool.
Second-place United is tied on points with Liverpool, but behind on goal difference. United plays at Anfield on Sunday.
“It’s that kind of season, that kind of year, that kind of situation,” Solskjaer said, referring to the condensed nature of the pandemic-affected season, “and there will be ups and downs, less consistency in results and performances.
“For me, it’s exciting. As a fan, it’s more interesting of course when there are more teams in and around each other compared to last season when one (Liverpool) ran away.”
United has been playing catch-up all season, having started it a week later than most teams because of its involvement in the final stages of the Europa League in August.
Solskjaer’s team also got off to a difficult start, losing 3-1 at home to Crystal Palace in its first game and 6-1 to Tottenham at Old Trafford in its third game.
“Sometimes with the results we got in the beginning, it made it more difficult for the players, maybe,” Solskjaer said. “It made it easier for people to criticize us — you look at the table and maybe worry. Because a game in hand is only good if you win it.
“It made it harder for players mentally to look at the table. Even if you don’t look at the table, people keep talking to you, keep talking away about your position.”
And Solskjaer struck a tone similar to Ferguson when he spoke of March and April being the key months in a title race.
“The league table doesn’t matter now, but you pick up points and when you get to March, April, that’s where the league is going to be more or less decided,” he said. “We knew that this season was going to be difficult for us. We started later than everyone, we had this game to catch up and we didn’t have a preseason.
“I remember I said that we just need to hang in there for a while … I meant picking up points, getting the performance right, get the points on the board and don’t let teams run away with it. We’ve done well.”