It’s Friday, so it’s time for some wild generalisation. Here goes. There are exactly four teams in the Premier League.
Obviously there are 20. But you can reduce those 20 into four basic archetypes. There’s the rubbish ones, right down the bottom, who are on their way towards relegation. Then there’s the not-great-but-not-doomed ones, occupying the space between the relegation zone and mid-table. Then there are the pretty decent ones, seventh and downwards.
Then there are the big bastards with all the money who win everything.
So, a look at the current Premier League table tells us that there are two definitely rubbish* teams that have already been relegated: Huddersfield Town and Fulham. Cardiff City are desperately trying to keep up with the tier above, which comprises Burnley, Southampton, Brighton, Newcastle, Crystal Palace, and Bournemouth.
Then there’s a four-point gap to West Ham, who sit at the bottom of the “pretty decent” tier. They are kept company by Everton, Leicester City, Watford, and United’s current bêtes noire: Wolverhampton Wanderers.
You know who the other six are. (And there’s probably an argument that Liverpool and City are occupying some kind of supercharged S-tier, but let’s keep things as simple as possible for the moment.)
Obviously this is all very hand-wavy and vague and doesn’t, for example, take account of mid-season changes. Southampton were proper rubbish for most of the season, for example, but the appointment of Ralph Hasenhüttl saw them move from “rubbish” to “actually quite okay”. But you take the point.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got his crack at the United job because United, a club whose business model and sense of identity is entirely contingent on being one of the big bastards, were floundering around in the tier below. And has earned himself his shiny new contract by overseeing a charge across that gap, so that United are now 14 points away from Wolves.
Yet as the pair of recent defeats to Wolves demonstrate, United’s move from B-tier to A-tier hasn’t come with any guarantee of superiority. We can probably lump the highly unconvincing wins over Watford and Leicester in here too. In all four games, with allowances for Ashley Young’s poorly-timed tackling, United have looked vulnerable.
The first loss to Wolves was chaotic and chastening, and while the second wasn’t quite as bad, it was still far from a surprise. The wins over Leicester and Watford might have brought the points, but you couldn’t call either performance dominant. And in truth, none of this has been particularly surprising.
To expand this to a general rule, the thing that connects all of the Premier League’s B-tier teams is that they have most or all of the following: an interesting and ambitious manager; one or two attacking players of real quality; a relatively settled first team; a plan; and a general lack of fear.
And these are precisely the things that United, at the moment, find quite awkward to deal with. Solskjaer’s introduction may have led to an upturn in happiness, results, and goalscoring, but it hasn’t resolved the fundamental problems of the squad. The defence is still janky, and prone to calamity, and the midfield is still a clunky and confusing thing.
Or to put it another way. The Solskjaer bounce has, on the whole, restored to United a certain amount of the old ability to swat inferior teams out of the way. But beyond that, this is still a team that wins in moments, in flashes of ability from its gifted attackers. And its still a team that huffs and puffs, then loses when its central defenders run into its goalkeeper.
And the Premier League, for all that it is heavily stratified, is dangerous for teams like this. The B-tier play smart, spiky football, and United, as well as games against City and Chelsea, have West Ham and Everton to come. Games that they should win, all being as has been paid for.
But games that they could easily lose. It’s hard to feel good about the prospect of Felipe Anderson and Richarlison running at Phil Jones. And it’s these games that really illustrate the extent of the task that has been given to Solskjaer. Turning United into title contenders isn’t just a question of swinging punches with the other big kids.
It’s about fixing a fundamental vulnerability that is there to be exposed by any decent football team. Inconveniently enough, our highly scientific method shows that the Premier League is, at this current time, more than 50% decent. It’s going to be an interesting summer.
* This isn’t meant as an insult, incidentally. Being “rubbish” by Premier League standards says nothing about the quality of a club in general, only that of the teams they keep putting out. It may even be the ideologically correct position. Get out of this nonsense, and get back into the Championship where you can have some fun.