The standards at the top of the Premier League have been so relentlessly high in recent seasons that the textbook has been rewritten when it comes to mounting a challenge.
Gone are ideas such as considering draws away from home a good result, or thinking champions can afford as many as five or six defeats across a season. It’s also been the end of the idea of being able to recover from a slow start, which is particularly bad news for Manchester United.
The word count here restricts us listing everything that has gone wrong at United in the seven seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, but far too often United have started poorly and if they’ve been able to make up some ground, it’s only been in the race for the top four rather than at the top.
Taking 10 games as the ‘start’ of a season, a point at which the table is beginning to take shape and the contenders have got themselves into position, United’s record in these opening exchanges is poor.
In the last seven seasons only twice have they won more than half of their first 10 Premier League games – seven in 2017/18 and six in 2015/16. Those are also the only seasons they’ve been above seventh in the table after 10 games, being second in 2017/18 and fourth in 2015/16.
Reading from the 2013/14 season, at that 10-game marker United have been eight points, 13 points, two points, eight points, five points, nine points and 15 points off the top spot. In five of those seven seasons their title chances were basically over with barely a quarter of the campaign gone.
It doesn’t particularly need saying, but for Manchester United that is simply not good enough. Supporters might not expect a title challenge to be sustained next season, but it would be nice for them to be able to dream with the season 10 games old.
Starts have been particularly costly in the previous two seasons. In 2018/19 United won five of their first 10 games and found themselves in eighth. That became only six of the first 15 and cost Jose Mourinho his job.
Last season United won only three of their first 10 league fixtures, but were somehow seventh. It was a run of form that could easily have cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job.
Solskjaer managed to turn a disastrous start around and United finished the season looking more coherent than they have done for a long time. There were clear signs of progress and a fast start would only cement the feeling that Solskjaer has United on the right track.
On the evidence of the fixture list that certainly looks achievable. If United are unable to rearrange the Burnley fixture postponed this weekend as a result of their extended break they might be a game behind, but while they have some tough games in October they are all at Old Trafford.
They welcome Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal during the second month of the season, but in the first 10 games there are also clashes with Crystal Palace, Brighton, Newcastle, West Brom, Southampton, Everton and West Ham. United should be looking to win at least six of those 10 games. Seven would put them in a good position for another top-four finish, at least.
Injuries will play a part in how quickly United start and whether they can maintain it. Solskjaer will hope Marcus Rashford is fit to hit the ground running next week, while Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba will have to make up for lost time in training over the next week.
Too often recently United have been off the pace early in the season and forced to play catch-up. This season they need to make a positive start and build on it.