(written by Cain Smith)
After a lacklustre start to the season, Manchester United have elevated their performances and, in turn, their league position. Now sitting pretty at the top of the table, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are starting to believe that they can challenge for the Premier League.
Slow defensive improvements throughout the season now means that United are not only a true offensive threat, but they can also hold their own on the defensive front for the most part. This season has brought a more well-rounded game to the side who were strictly a counter-attacking team for the majority of last season.
This article will be looking at four players who have led Manchester United to the top of the table in the first half of the season and if they continue to do so, they’ll each have a chance at picking up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award which Bruno Fernandes won last season.
The Portuguese playmaker made an instant impact when he joined the club last January, scoring eight goals and providing seven assists in the Premier League, propelling United into third place by the end of the season and earning him the Player of the Year award.
What is more impressive, though, is how well the Portuguese midfielder has done to sustain that same output this season. So far, Fernandes has 15 goals and nine assists in 28 appearances this campaign.
The midfielder is a constant threat to opposition with his passing range and while his execution is not consistent throughout matches, he will almost always help create one big chance which can win the game for United – or will have the nerve to score, be that from the penalty spot or elsewhere.
It is not only his output, but also his immense workrate which makes Fernandes such a vital cog in Solskjaer’s system. United’s number 18 constantly tracks back and is a solid presser too.
Although he currently looks as if a rest could do him good, Fernandes will likely be crucial to the side if they are to continue their title charge and is arguably the man who has changed United around in the last 12 months.
Since Solskjaer was appointed, Rashford has risen up a level and is now arguably one of the most dangerous attacking players in the Premier League. The Englishman has scored 14 goals and also provided nine assists, both him and Fernandes have been the two primary goal scorers for The Reds this season.
The winger has been so influential and poses one of the biggest threats in the league when on the counter-attack. Yet, the United forward has also become much more well-rounded and is providing the pass more so than he was in previous seasons, as shown by his assist tally so far.
Improvements are still needed if the 22-year-old wants to be considered as a world-class player, particularly in his consistency and decision making, but it is clear that he is now a very important player for the club and is one of the main reasons that the club are at the summit of the league.
He has often been mocked on social media due to his hefty price tag, but Harry Maguire has been one of the best defenders in the league this season. Not only does he offer a great passing range – being able to fizz the ball to players between the lines or find a diagonal long pass – Maguire also has shown his talents in his own box this season, making so many blocks which could’ve been converted into goals, most recently at Anfield, where he blocked Roberto Firmino’s shot just yards away from the United goal.
His ability in the air is also one of his best attributes, he wins the majority of his aerial duels which often nullifies sides who look to play long against United. Maguire wins 73.1% of his aerial duels this season according to fbref.com.
It was a tough start to the season for Maguire and the entire squad, but as fitness improved in the side, the English centre-back has proven to be not just an important defensive asset to the side but also a solid progressor in possession, whether than be through his surges forward with the ball, or through his passing ability.
He has also made a solid partnership with fellow centre-back, Victor Lindelof. However, when Eric Bailly is fit, he has proven to be a much more suited partner for the United captain.
It almost looked like his career at Old Trafford was over after endless injuries and a lack of drive, yet Luke Shaw is now one of United’s best performers and is keeping new signing Alex Telles out of the starting team.
The left-back has often been scrutinised for his lack of attacking output but is now progressing the play, driving with the ball and also linking up with the attackers, all at a high level.
He has kept his defensive strengths too and is one of the best left-backs in the league one-on-one against a winger – he tackles 61.5% of the dribblers he faces, according to Fbref.
This transformation from the Englishman has been a much appreciated one as the left-back position now looks like a clear strength, rather than a weakness for the Reds. It helps to show that increased competition for places can help improve individual player and that is certainly the case regarding the left-back.
It is clear that United are going to need to rely on more than just these four players, with Fernandes and Rashford starting to show weariness in their performances after playing so much in the first half of the season. Players such as Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood need to take more responsibility as the season progresses. However, it seems quite clear that the four mentioned have been the standout performers for the side thus far in the 2020/21 campaign.