Daniel Storey: At least we still have 15-match sprints for top four and the drop

Manchester United might be able to claim misfortune, if they look hard enough.

Daniel Storey: At least we still have 15-match sprints for top four and the drop

Manchester United can claim misfortune, but this is their new reality

Manchester United might be able to claim misfortune, if they look hard enough. They were without their best forward; Anthony Martial missed a glorious opportunity to score an equaliser, and Andreas Pereira was oh so close to stabbing home in the first half. But it would take an emphatic optimist to conclude that they deserved anything from the match. Liverpool scored twice, Mohamed Salah missed a sitter, they hit a post and had two goals disallowed, one controversially.

This is what Manchester United have become, a failing team desperately looking for reasons not to cry crisis. They have stuck by a manager who has them some way off the pace for the top four despite their usual peers also slumping. Solskjaer’s team are comfortably behind Leicester City and Chelsea, both managed by coaches in their first full seasons at their clubs. Any supporter in the country would be able to name three or four out-of-work managers who could do a better job.

For all the talk of needing three or four windows to rebuild the squad, Solskjaer has shown nothing in his managerial career that convinces that he is the right man for the task. If his deep connection to Manchester United counts for something, it makes little difference in the real world. The sooner United wake up and realise that fact, the easier it will be to move forward with the right man in charge.

Manchester City require a defensive overhaul

Manchester City could not be expected to have kept pace with this rampant Liverpool team, but their title defence has been pathetic. That limpness has its root in their defensive incompetence.

Last season, City conceded 23 league goals; they have already allowed 27 this season. Most worrying is their home form: They have conceded first in six of their last nine home league games, as many times as in Pep Guardiola’s first 60 home league matches. The Etihad used to be a fortress, but they are now getting caught on the counter-attack far too easily.

Guardiola insisted this week that he will stay on as Manchester City manager as long as he is not sacked, and he will already be planning for a summer overhaul of his defence. Benjamin Mendy and John Stones have surely finished their drinks in the last-chance saloon, while Kyle Walker is draining his glass too. Aymeric Laporte may be the only survivor of the first-choice defence at the start of the season.

Top-four race will require only one run of consistency

Another weekend in which those clamouring a top-four place fell short and yet will still not have lost heart. Tottenham began it by drawing 0-0 thanks to a Troy Deeney missed penalty and yet still gained points on Chelsea, Leicester, and Manchester United. Arsenal will have been bitterly disappointed to drop two points at home to Sheffield United and yet they too saw their chances of finishing in the top four increase.

Each of the clubs in the top four — particularly Manchester City and Leicester City — will be confident of remaining there, but there is now a queue of clubs who can steal a march over the second half of the season, That includes Wolves and Sheffield United, whatever our inherent belief about an established Big Six might suggest. Nobody but Liverpool have earned that lofty status.

We now have a shootout over the final 15 matches of the season. Chelsea may be five points clear of the rest, but they are on course for 64 points this season. Last year, that would only have been enough to finish in seventh, two points behind Manchester United.

Tottenham must find answer to Kane’s absence

It would be inaccurate to say that Tottenham’s attacking ambitions have been ruined by Harry Kane’s injury. They only scored four times in the four league games directly before Kane’s absence, and that included failing to score at all against Chelsea and Southampton. But Spurs have also failed to score in each of the two games since Kane was laid low.

Jose Mourinho must find a solution. If the obvious option was to play Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son as split strikers and play more on the counter attack than they were before, it has not worked so far. Kane’s importance not just in scoring but in linking play in the final third becomes far more obvious in his absence.

Mourinho’s best option might be to give Daniel Levy a ring and urge him to buy or loan either a short-term solution or a centre-forward that is happy to play second fiddle to Kane next season. A return for Fernando Llorente has been mooted, but it would be a mistake if they didn’t try their best to dissuade Olivier Giroud from moving to Inter. In the months leading up to Euro 2020, that move would work for all parties.

This relegation battle will surely go down to the wire

Last season, 34 points and a non-shambolic goal difference would have been enough to survive relegation to the Championship. Continue at their current rate, and Bournemouth will achieve 33 points and are 19th in the Premier League. Aston Villa, in the bottom three and floundering, are on course for 36 points. The relegation battle could well require an unusually high points total to avoid the drop.

You can make your own conclusions as to the reason, and not all of them will be complimentary.

The drop in standards from every Big Six team other than Liverpool has caused points to be shared out far more equally across the division than usual.

Last season, the gap between second and 15th was 57, and the gap between fourth and 15th was 31. Currently, those two gaps stand at 23 and 14.

Although supporters of clubs in the bottom half may feel uncomfortable that only 12 points separate all 10 of them, for the neutral it creates a wonderful spectacle for the rest of the season.

This bitter fight is going to go down the final throes.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up