Paul Scholes knows all about winning Premier League titles. He won 11 with Manchester United including the club’s 20th, and last, league championship in 2013. Eight years on, he believes they can finally win it again this season if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team clears the psychological hurdle of beating Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.
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The former United midfielder has been a robust critic of the team’s performances and progress under a succession of managers — David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and now Solskjaer — since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement eight years ago, and his views on the team have echoed the frustrations of supporters. But with United moving to the top of the Premier League with a 1-0 win at Burnley on Tuesday — a win that means they visit Anfield with a three-point lead over the champions — Scholes told ESPN that, for the first time since 2013, he can see his old club winning the title again.
For that to happen, though, he believes they must iron out some key flaws and be able to rely on the World Cup-winning Paul Pogba rather than the inconsistent and underperforming player who has defined his latest, four-and-a-half-year tour at Old Trafford.
“It feels strange to say it, but I actually do think United can win the league because it’s been such a weird season,” Scholes said. “But it’s all about winning the big games now.
“They haven’t done that yet. People can say they won at Leicester on the final day of last season to qualify for the Champions League, but that wasn’t a big game like going to City, Liverpool or Chelsea and winning when it matters.
“United have lost four successive semifinals and were knocked out the Champions League with a really bad defeat against RB Leipzig. That failure to win big games has to change if they are to win anything, but there’s no better place to start than at Anfield.”
“Man United will never have a better chance to win at Anfield”
Sunday’s trip to Liverpool has naturally been viewed as an acid test of United’s title credentials. Solskjaer’s team travel to Anfield having not lost any of their 15 Premier League away games since losing 2-0 to Jurgen Klopp’s side almost exactly a year ago, but United have failed to win on their past five visits to Anfield, with their last victory coming exactly five years ago on Sunday.
All the while, Liverpool have not lost a Premier League home game since losing to Crystal Palace in May 2017 — a 67-game unbeaten sequence — but Scholes insists United can, and must, end that run this weekend.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is ready to see his table-topping Manchester United put to the test at Anfield.
“United will never have a better chance to win at Anfield,” he said. “It’s a massive advantage in their favour that there will be no fans inside the ground and, in my opinion, more important than Liverpool’s injury problems in defence.
“Whenever I played at Anfield, the crowd was the biggest influence on the game. It was always so tough to go there because of that, but it’s not a factor on Sunday,” Scholes added.
“It’s still a huge challenge facing United, though. Liverpool have great forwards who can score from nothing, but the biggest threat comes from the full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, and United have to find a way to stop them.
“United have the players to to go and win at Anfield, but this is the moment when they have to show they can deliver in the biggest games. They haven’t beaten any of the so-called Big Six this season and they won’t win anything until they do.
“Psychologically, United just seem to lack belief on the big occasion, but they are also coming up against better players, so it’s much harder to beat those teams if you don’t have everybody performing to the top of their game. But when you do win against your rivals, especially away from home, it is massive for confidence — yours and theirs. When we used to go and win at Arsenal, we knew it would be a dagger to the heart to win at their place.”
The psychology of winning close games
There’s also an art to winning in tight encounters. United turned one point into three at Burnley in midweek when Pogba scored a late goal at Turf Moor, and they’ve also edged games by one goal at Brighton, Southampton and Sheffield United this season. But Scholes says a title-winning team has to learn to do the same against all levels of opponent — another question mark hanging over this United team.
“It’s not about going to Liverpool or City and winning with a great performance or lots of goals,” he said. “When we won titles, so many of our wins at Liverpool were 1-0 or 2-1 after having to dig it out for 80 minutes. You accept you’re going to have days like that against the top teams, when you don’t dominate the game and have to battle to stay in it,” he said.
“You have to be able to defend properly and withstand the opposition’s attacks, but I’m still to be convinced that this United side can do that.
“As a back-four, I worry about how good they really are. At full-back, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is just about defending, which is fine for a game at Liverpool, but I’m not sure what Luke Shaw brings to the team. In the middle, Ole still has to find Harry Maguire’s best partner. Eric Bailly has pace, but he is rash and picks up too many injuries. Victor Lindelof plays the position better and seems to be Ole’s preferred option, but again, he is not totally convincing.
“If I was Ole and could sign a defender this month, I’d go for Wesley Fofana at Leicester. He’s only 20, but he has been outstanding and he has the potential to be anything he wants to be. United have done OK at the back this season, but they have been exposed when playing against the big teams, and that’s another problem they need to solve.”
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The flip side of the challenges that United must overcome are the positives in midfield and attack. When United won the title in 2012-13, Ferguson’s team managed only 16 goals from midfield all season, with Shinji Kagawa scoring six of those. But Solskjaer’s United have already eclipsed that total with 17 so far from just 17 games. Bruno Fernandes leads the way with 11 Premier League goals, but Pogba, Scott McTominay, Daniel James, and Donny van de Beek have also scored in the league.
Fernandes has been United’s most consistent player since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon last January, and Scholes believes his presence is now helping Pogba perform at his best.
“Bruno has definitely helped Pogba,” Scholes said. “At times, Paul seemed to play with the expectation that he had to win a game by himself and do everything, but Bruno has come in and become a match-winner and creator. All of the stats show how important Bruno has been to the team, but his presence has brought the best out of Pogba.
“Ever since his agent said he wanted to leave United last month, he [Pogba] has really performed. He has got his head down, cut out all of the flashy stuff and now looks like the Pogba that plays for France — the one that won the World Cup — in that he keeps it simple and performs consistently. I hope it continues because if it does, he can be a player that really makes a difference between now and the end of the season.
“He has all the ability in the world — he proved that in a good team at Juventus and with France — so it is up to him now. Ole will wonder at times if he can trust Pogba, but his recent performances have been nothing but positive.”
Greenwood should get more chances over Cavani
As proved by United’s last title-winning team, when Robin van Persie scored 26 league goals, every potential champion side must have a striker capable of scoring at least 20 times in a season. This season, none of United’s forwards have hit double figures yet, with Marcus Rashford leading the strikers with seven goals — four behind midfielder Fernandes. Last season Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood hit 44 league goals between them, but they have collectively managed just 10 so far this term, with Edinson Cavani also tallying three times.
Cavani’s impact since arriving as a free agent in October has surprised many, including Scholes, but he believes that Greenwood, rather than the Uruguayan, holds the key to United’s goal output.
“I think Ole really needs to start playing Mason more regularly now,” Scholes said. “He will score goals whenever he gets chances and is the type of striker who could be hitting 25-30 a season when he gets more experience. But he isn’t going to score if he isn’t playing, and he’s at a stage where he needs to be out there. It’s similar to Phil Foden earlier this season at Man City — Pep Guardiola was holding him back, but he obviously had the talent to play a key role and he is showing that now. Mason is at the same level.
“Cavani has surprised me. I thought he had run out of steam at Paris Saint-Germain, but I still don’t think he is a player who should be starting. He is the guy you bring off the bench in the final 20 minutes when you need a goal, and I think that has been evident in the games he has started, when he hasn’t looked quite so sharp.
“But I love Ole’s best front three — Rashford, Martial and Greenwood — because I think they all offer so much. People think I don’t like Martial, but I actually really rate him. I just think, right now, his confidence has gone a bit and he needs to build it up again.”
United’s depth, rather than talent, is likely to be challenged between now and the end of the season if Solskjaer and his team can sustain their title push. But Scholes for one is refusing to rule out United winning their 21st Premier League title in May.
“Ole has to manage his squad because you can’t ask the same 10-11 players to perform every week,” he said. “He made changes in the FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea last season and lost heavily — a warning about what can happen once you go beyond the best XI.
“But it’s in United’s hands, and that’s the best place to be. They have some tough games to come at Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal, but it is their away form that has put them top of the table.
“If they can win those games, they will have answered the question about winning when it matters. And they’ll go a lot closer to winning the title by doing that.”