Manchester United is cementing its runner-up status

Marcus Rashford slotted home two goals in the first 24 minutes and Manchester United worked through the Liverpool defense for a 2-1 win.

United are now undefeated in nine straight league matches against Liverpool, winning six and drawing three. The Reds have not won the Northwest Derby since March 2014 despite finishing above Manchester United in the league last season. Even with the win, Liverpool still leads Man U in the Premier League form table (albeit by just one point). The Reds had recently posted one of the largest Champions League knockout round victories ever, a 5-0 smashing away at Porto on February 14.

Despite all that, Manchester United scored yet another victory over one of their biggest rivals. Jose Mourinho is often criticized for his troubles against the top six, but he seems to be beginning to turn that reputation around. The “special one” is 44-22-20 all-time against that group, good for wins in just over half of those matches.

But more recent results are just as important. Man U is 4-1-3 against the top six this season, with a home game against Arsenal and a trip to Manchester City remaining on their schedule.  They are still a mammoth 16 points off their rivals, the all but title winning light blues. However, they lead the rest of the top six by four points.

Jurgen Klopp, who previously was well known for his great record against Jose Mourinho (now 3-4-2) and Pep Guardiola (6-1-5), led Liverpool to just one own goal against Man U this season.

The mantra for the Premier League has often been “do well enough against the bottom 14 and you’ll finish top four, but add wins against the top six and you’ll win the title.”

Man City has certainly worked that strategy to near perfection this city, dropping points just four times. Man U, Tottenham, and Liverpool have accomplished the other half of it. That leaves Arsenal, who is now 12 off the pace for top four.

So the next step for these clubs to be competitive and challenge Man City for a title next season will be defeating the top six.

United is already part way there as they have wins against every top six club except for City. They lead the other four clubs in wins against the top six by a respectable three points.

Top Six Table

Position Team Points Games Played Wins Draws Losses Goals Forced Goals Against Goal Differential
1 Manchester City 21 8 7 0 1 22 7 15
2 Manchester United 13 8 4 1 3 9 8 1
3 Tottenham Hotspur 10 8 3 1 4 11 12 -1
4 Liverpool 10 9 2 4 4 15 20 -5
5 Chelsea 9 8 2 3 3 7 8 -1
6 Arsenal 6 9 1 3 5 9 19 -10

Nevertheless, 16 points is a huge amount of ground to make up. Man U will have to improve their 16-4-2 record against the rest of the league.

They may also need to count on Man City not having another record-setting Premier League season. They are currently on pace for 103 points, well ahead of Chelsea’s record of 95 in 2004-05.

Despite finishing so far off the title pace this season, Man U can still be proud of their performance. Their second place finish is much better than last year’s fifth-place standing. They are on pace for 82 points, which could come close to winning the league in a down year.

Man U have often been criticized for having the most talent but falling short of their potential. That has changed this season as Mourinho is starting to get the most out of his Red Devils.

In typical Mourinho fashion, this team prides itself on defense, allowing just 23 goals all season. They are second in that category only to City.

Chris Smalling and Ashley Young lead the back line ahead of one of the best goalkeepers in the game, David de Gea. Man U leads the league with 15 clean sheets.

However, no summary of Man U’s defense is complete without recognition of Nemanja Matic. The Serbian midfielder made a huge difference in two title-winning seasons for Chelsea. And it would be no surprise if he helped lead Man U to the promised land.

With the mid-season addition of Alexis Sanchez, the midfield is now both deep and close to unstoppable. Marcus Rashford was the goalscorer on Saturday, but Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial have eight and nine goals this season, respectively.

And up top Romelu Lukaku is steadily performing, although he is having a bit of a down year. He will need to step back up to at least 20 goals for Man U to win a title next season.

This team often plays like a Mourinho team. They are accustomed to 1-0 and 2-0 wins, but they also have the ability to win shootouts. These include the recent 3-2 come from behind victory over Crystal Palace and a 4-2 goal fest over Watford on November 28.

The team with one of the largest payrolls and arguably the most talent in the Premier League is in prime position to get richer. They are in prime position to take second in the league and could really make a run at the title next season.

Photo Credit: By [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: By Дмитрий Голубович [CC BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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Patrick English