Alex Keble argues that a kind fixture list, Chelsea's stumbling form, and Manchester United's big win at Tottenham suggest it is worth backing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side to finish in the top four, at 9/4...
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made history on Sunday by becoming the first Manchester United manager to win his first six matches in charge of the club. It's getting harder and harder to argue that the Solskjaer effect is purely psychological.
Tottenham Hotspur would easily have beaten United on Sunday if it wasn't for David de Gea's brilliance in goal, and yet - at the risk of reverse engineering the narrative - there were still plenty of positives from the away side's performance to suggest fans can be quietly optimistic about a top four finish this season.
The club are now just six points behind stuttering Chelsea, who not only face a tough game at Arsenal this weekend but also seem unlikely to solve their problems in the January transfer window.
All United have to do is win seven more points than Maurizio Sarri's team from the remaining 16 games. Here's why they might just do it:
Solskjaer's tactical discipline shows promise
Initially it seemed as though Man Utd's improvements merely reflected the squad's relief to be rid of the suffocating presence of Jose Mourinho, but some interesting tactical decision-making at Wembley suggests otherwise.
Solskjaer deployed a much higher defensive line than Mourinho would have done, but this was not a gung-ho display. United managed to compress space between the lines (they were squashed together vertically, and spread horizontally to pin the full-backs) so that Spurs struggled to pass the ball through the centre of the pitch. Mauricio Pochettino's team were unable to carve United open as many had expected - for the first half at least.
Squeezing the lines effectively takes detailed tactical coaching, particularly when married with holding a high overall shape, which is why its presence in the first 45 was so significant. Unsurprisingly it all fell apart as the game wore on (these things take time), but here was a clear sign that Solskjaer is capable of coaching conservative, pragmatic tactics when necessary.
Solskjaer's attacking instincts suit the majority of the United squad
Not that United will show caution very often. In selecting a similar starting 11 for all of his league games in charge, Solskjaer has revealed a desire to prioritise intelligence in the final third, picking those who float across the front line and display a sharp appreciation for probing space. Jesse Lingard is already a regular, for example, while the less mobile Romelu Lukaku resides on the bench.
Directness and verticality is surprisingly well-suited to the United squad, primarily because Mourinho's football - although congealing over the years - was always supposed to wed a deep-lying defence with fast counter-attacks. The likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez, and Diogo Dalot face a steady upward trajectory between now and May.
Again, now that Solskjaer's winning streak has become sustained we can begin to reassess his decision-making - and see there are sound tactical reasons for his team selections. It would appear he offers the players more than just an arm around the shoulder.
A kind fixture list suggests their run could continue
United's next four games are Brighton (h), Burnley (h), Leicester (a), and Fulham (a), handing Solskjaer an opportunity to maintain momentum and close the gap even further. Chelsea face Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (a), Huddersfield (h), and Man City (a) in that time, a horrid run of games that could conceivably see Sarri's men earn as little as four points.
This is significant, because we're only six games away from referring to 'run-ins' and all the tension that comes with spring. Should the sides be more or less level on points by this stage then United will become favourites, since Solskjaer will be under considerably less pressure than Sarri.
Most importantly of all, United have already played all but one of their away matches against the top five, with only Arsenal to come at the Emirates on March 9.
Chelsea's issues show no sign of ending
It looks increasingly unlikely that Chelsea will find a striker for the right price this month, meaning their goalscoring woes may continue indefinitely. Sarri's desire to play ultra-fluid attacking football has hit a major roadblock in the last two months, with the vast majority of his squad clearly ill-suited to such demands.
N'Golo Kante certainly isn't the right player for a box-to-box role and neither Matteo Kovacic nor Ross Barkley have the bustling ingenuity required to take the burden away from Eden Hazard. The Belgian's goals have dried up primarily because opponents are doubling up on him, acutely aware that every meaningful Chelsea attack funnels down Hazard's side of the pitch. That situation won't change until reinforcements are brought in.
Which leaves Man Utd in a surprisingly strong position to outperform a stumbling Chelsea side in the next four months. Seven points really isn't much of a gap. By extension, Solskjaer landing the Man Utd job full-time is a distinct possibility.