Even though it was match pitting the table-toppers against their closest competitors, and the latest edition of one of the country’s fiercest cross-town rivalries, the stakes of Sunday’s Manchester Derby were, in concrete terms, pretty small. No matter the result, City was always going maintain its seven-finger grip on the league title, and United was always going to remain big favorites for a spot in the top four. In that sense, then, nothing much changed when the Red Devils came away with a well-earned 2–0 victory.
Nevertheless, the impressive victory and the strong season it instantiated do attest to United’s changing status in the league and the sport: namely, that the club is no longer a complete joke.
It has been eight years since Alex Ferguson’s career-capping Premier League title in 2013. Since then, the club has spent nearly that entire time in the wilderness. Watching this mighty institution flail away trying to defend its own honor, insisting it was still one of the biggest and best clubs in the sport while routinely getting humiliated on the pitch, chasing after superstars who inevitably snubbed United in favor of one of its former peers, regularly demonstrating its denial about its fallen status—this has been one of the most consistent sources of hilarity and joy in European soccer in the post-Fergie era. Even what passes for United’s successes—winning the continent’s JV tournament, nabbing a few top-four spots but never coming close to challenging for the title—testify to the club’s diminished stature. And because this is sports, where the only pleasure comparable to your own team thriving is the schadenfreude in watching another team suffer, this bad run of United’s has been absolutely delightful.
However, slowly but steadily, Manchester United has dug its way out from under its disgrace. Mostly, this is due to its players. Bruno Fernandes is the world-class star the team had been desperately in need of for years to take the squad to the next level; in Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood, United has one of the most exciting, young, high-potential forward lines in the world; Paul Pogba, even when he struggles, is still Paul Pogba; Luke Shaw, long a punchline, has become a true baller; Scott McTominay and Fred aren’t the flashiest central midfielders, but they make for a surprisingly tough-nosed duo that allows the more adventurous players ahead of them to express themselves without leaving the defense too vulnerable. Many of those players are young, are either homegrown or been in Manchester for a long time, and, most importantly, are lots of fun to watch—so much so that it’s hard to keep up the old ire when the team is capable of moments like these.
Aside from the players themselves, the other big force in United’s quiet transformation has been manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His even-keeled confidence and lack of bluster has stood in stark contrast to his predecessors José Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, both of whom seemed to use their own legendary status in an effort to will the club back to greatness through sheer bombast. (Unsurprisingly, that tactic backfired, and made the schadenfreude all the sweeter when they failed.) Solskjaer has more often sought to turn down the pressure to get “back where the club belongs” rather than ramp it up, and that, plus his simple, effective, and attack-minded playing style, has paid dividends. At last, playing for Man Utd looks chill and fun again.
Should United hang on to its top four place, it will make for the club’s first back-to-back top four run since the Fergie days. As-is, the roster looks like it’ll only improve as its several younger players continue get better, and the club still has more money than God to use to hopefully add those couple more stars that can push the team over into true title contention. Things can change quickly, as United knows better than most, but as of right now probably only Man City and Liverpool have clearly better future prospects than the Red Devils.
Of course, finishing in the top four two years in a row is still miles away from the aspirations of United’s glory days. The club is certainly not “back,” and it will probably never return to where it once was at its height as presumptive title favorites for two decades straight. Still, United is not a joke anymore, either, and that counts for something. It’s a club with cool players, a fun playing style, realistically achievable aspirations, and a growing acknowledgement of and comfort with its place in the game’s hierarchy.
As the deposed king of the Premier League, United has stopped impotently wailing about its birthright and the mandate of heaven, and gone about the hard work of recapturing its throne. Maybe the Red Devils will succeed in that effort in the next few years, or maybe they won’t. Either way, for the first time in years, it’s now more fun to root for their success than to laugh at their failure—for now, at least.