Manchester United are back. Or so said many in the footballing world after a 2-0 win over Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup Final secured the club’s first silverware since 2017.
Performances over the season have rightly led to a sense of optimism developing at Old Trafford, though far greater heights must be scaled before a club that has been so successful over the past 30 years can truly be considered to be “back”.
The Premier League is the competition in which progress, both this season and over the next few years, will demonstrate the club’s real progress, and the size of the task is highlighted by the fact that Man United have only qualified for the Champions League four times over the past nine seasons. Only twice have the team been runners up during that period – in 2017 and 2021 – and on both occasions, Man City won the league with a points gap too large for Man United to have been considered in realistic contention.
Aside from the dominance of Man City, there have been title wins for Chelsea, Leicester City and Liverpool over the past decade, with Arsenal currently well-placed to join the list of teams to have lifted the Premier League trophy since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Following each of the two seasons in which Man United did record a runners-up spot, they slid to sixth position the following year, amidst turbulent campaigns involving mid-season managerial changes with the sackings of Jose Mourinho in 2018, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 2021.
Under both Mourinho and Solskjaer, Man United enjoyed periods during which the team genuinely appeared on course to compete with the likes of Man City and Liverpool at the top, before ultimately falling back down the table as they watched two fierce local rivals adding to their list of honours.
The obvious progress being made under Erik Ten Hag should therefore be treated cautiously before heralding Sunday’s cup win as the beginning of another golden period at a club that doesn’t have to look too far into the past to recall famous wins on both the domestic and European scene.
Over the years since Pep Guardiola arrived in English football, the task of winning the Premier League has become more difficult than ever, with very little margin for error. Gone are the days of routinely being able to lose five or six matches a season and win the title after taking fewer than 80 points, with Man City and Liverpool averaging more than 95 points as champions over the five years in which they have been the two dominant teams. It would take a club record points haul for Man United to achieve such a tally, although a more competitive league potentially involving six or seven clubs could end the need to rack up such ludicrous winning totals.
Whilst there is a lot to suggest that Man United are likely to be a threat to the top sides over the coming years, they aren’t quite there yet. But with a fine manager who is getting the most from his players, a team delivering strong performances in the league, and a cup secured with potentially more silverware to follow this season, it may not be long before they really are back.