United were top of the league this time last year - what's changed since?

It may be hard to believe but this time last year, Manchester United sat top of the Premier League table.

On 17 January 2021, United drew 0-0 at Anfield – and could have won it with Paul Pogba’s late chance – to remain top of the league.

One caveat is that Manchester City were only two points back, with a game in hand, but United are currently 24 points and six places back, having made three major signings since.

So what has happened in the intervening 12 months? Here is a look at what has changed…

United’s inexperienced mentality reared its head

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RONALDO NEEDS TO STOP WHINING.

Within ten days of that Anfield draw, United lost 2-1 at home to Sheffield United, who were already doomed for relegation back to the Championship at that stage.

That sparked a run of one win in five Premier League games, as United slipped back and allowed City to turn any notion of a title race into a procession.

It was an indication of the mentality within the squad. Perhaps it was not expected that United would last the pace with City, but it was also reasonable to expect them not to wilt as quickly and easily as they did.

United never found a way to get over the line and win silverware under Solskjaer, and their results and approach once top of the league summed up why.

Fans came back to stadiums

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It would be an exaggeration to say that Solskjaer’s United were only good when fans weren’t in stadiums, but there is something in it.

During Project Restart, United produced a fabulous run of form to finish second behind closed doors. Then, they came second during the only full season without full stadiums.

When fans returned, United’s form capitulated. A raucous Old Trafford crowd cheered United to home victories over Leeds and Newcastle, but those matches are arguably the only times the Red Devils have played well over the course of 90 minutes all season.

United clawed back a staggering 31 points from losing positions last season, but in front of full houses, they were unable to keep on turning the tide.

Solskjaer got the squad he wanted

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United finished second and the consensus was that they needed two or three more players to be ready for a title push.

In came Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo and the pressure ramped up on Solskjaer. The time for a title challenge was now.

United folded under that pressure and could not keep pace with their title rivals. Expectations rose but performances did not rise to meet them; they actually fell through the floor.

Others got their act together

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When Liverpool hosted United, they had a defensive injury crisis which meant that Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were playing at centre-half.

This time last year, Frank Lampard was still Chelsea manager, it was still another seven days before he was sacked and replaced by Thomas Tuchel.

In the last year, both clubs, in short, got their act together and along with City, the Premier League now boasts three of the strongest clubs in England.

United slipped back but other clubs also pulled away, creating the gap that we see now.

United wrote off 2021/22?

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Solskjaer was sacked in November, with plenty of time to turn United’s season around.

But United opted to appoint an interim manager in Ralf Rangnick, who has good tactical ideas and a strong philosophy, but only six months to implement it.

That is one reason why the expected uplift in performances has not occurred. United could have gone hard to replace Solskjaer with Mauricio Pochettino, starting the new era there and then and giving the club fresh impetus to chase trophies.

Instead, the campaign looks like it may fizzle out without even a strong top four challenge. There are still two trophies up for grabs, but it could be argued that decisions behind the scenes – not sacking Solskjaer earlier, appointing an interim, not going all-in for Pochettino – has lead to this season drifting.

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Sam Preston is an NCTJ gold standard news and sports journalist who studied with the Press Association. He also has a 2:1 law with French law degree from the University of Birmingham, which included a year studying at Bordeaux Montaigne University. He is an FA Level 1 football coach who appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show in 2018 and has also written digital football content and match-day programme pieces for Colchester United, Mansfield Town and Stockport County.