Manchester United kicked off their 2021/22 league campaign with a resounding home win against rivals Leeds United. It was the first time United played a Premier League match in front of a capacity Old Trafford crowd since the Manchester derby in the 2019/20 season, and Old Trafford was buzzing.
The win against Leeds United will hopefully be a platform for United to build on for the rest of the season, and importantly, correct the dire home form of last season. It’s no secret with the newest additions Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men will have title ambitions, however in order to achieve this United will have to turn Old Trafford into a fortress once more.
Teams of United’s past had a huge advantage over opponents when playing at Old Trafford with the fear factor that it brought with it, but as of recent years that effect has been lost. While United are currently on an incredible away run of form in the league, turning the tide on home form will be vital to challenge rivals Manchester City and Chelsea.
It was just last season that United went into the Premier League campaign very much ill prepared, players had a lack of minutes and hadn’t been afforded much time away in the summer. The world was still reeling and adjusting to the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic and United were due to begin their season away at Burnley in early September.
However, this was postponed due to mandatory regulations stating the need for 30 days between seasons, indicative of the fact United’s 2019/20 campaign had only just ended on the 16th August, an extended season that seeped deep into summer leaving United in unfamiliar territory. United had been engaged in a gruelling European schedule, ultimately getting knocked out of the Europa League semi-finals against Sevilla.
An August finish for the season then meant the club had to somehow balance the need for players to take a break while also prepare for the fast-approaching new season and it was simply unfeasible.
When the first game of the season did come around, United were greeted by a fired-up Crystal Palace side and an empty Old Trafford; both of which contributed to the eventual 3-1 defeat. A game marred by a poor VAR decision and a lethargic United sent Palace third and condemned United to just their third ever defeat on an opening day of the season.
This was a game in which Paul Pogba looked miles off the pace and was replaced by Donny van de Beek for his competitive United debut, bagging a goal in the process, while Bruno Fernandes was a shadow of his usual self. A week later United picked up an unusual away victory against Brighton and Hove Albion, largely thanks to a Bruno Fernandes penalty awarded after the final whistle, and were then back at Old Trafford in early October to face Tottenham Hotspur and Jose Mourinho.
A game against the former United manager should have sparked the perfect motivation for the United players to correct the poor opening day at Old Trafford, however, it was not to be as Anthony Martial was sent off in the first half and Spurs subsequently thumped United 6-1.
United’s wretched home form then continued with a lacklustre 0-0 draw against Chelsea and a really poor 1-0 defeat against Arsenal, a game that was scrappy throughout. It was the 1st November and United sat fifteenth in the table, disastrous by the club’s high standards, and all due to the terrible home form, United had won both Premier League away matches and beaten Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League at Le Parc des Princes for contrast.
Midway through November United finally got their first home victory in the Premier League, scraping past West Bromwich Albion with a Fernandes penalty. In the next home game United picked up a point against bitter rivals Manchester City, following that up with an away victory against Sheffield United and an emphatic 6-2 win against Leeds United, which took place at Old Trafford.
This was arguably a turning point regarding United’s home form, United dispatched Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa in the next matches at Old Trafford, managing to climb to the top of the table with the improved home results and impeccable away form. However, it was poetic in nature that United slipped from first to second shortly after, being undone once more at Old Trafford by eventually relegated Sheffield United.
This illustrated clearly the reason United finished second last season, they couldn’t win consistently enough at Old Trafford to keep up with Manchester City, dropping too many unnecessary points. Further slipups at home did arrive later in the season, but it was likely this game against Sheffield and the early run in the season that was the costliest, the Sheffield loss being indicative of United’s fortunes for the remainder of the campaign.
With the first home win against Leeds in the bag for United this season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his men will hope that it’s an omen for better days to come at Old Trafford this season. The preparation for this season has been slightly better than last, albeit still nowhere near perfect, which is a testament to United’s impressive performance in the opening day.
The importance of good home form etched clearly into United minds from last season, many would look at United’s early run as a good opportunity to cement contention at the top of the Premier League. United face home games against Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Everton in the opening stretch this season, all before a tricky run of fixtures including Liverpool and City.
If United manage to continue in the same manner as they did against Leeds, they could go into the home game against Liverpool in October top of the league. Theoretically, it all bodes well for United on paper, it’s just a case of United capitalising on a favourable run with performances on the pitch.
The return of a full Old Trafford will be instrumental in lifting the United players, their absence almost certainly having an effect on the home performances of early last season. Additionally, if United gain momentum by winning most the season’s early matches, the Old Trafford faithful will be even more fired up knowing the prospect of the elusive title number 21 will be within reach.
In Manchester United title winning teams of the past Old Trafford was revered and feared by all opposing teams, United went through the 2010/11 season winning every home game but one, undefeated at Old Trafford to lift the title. United had big players with big characters in all title winning sides, and this translated into Old Trafford being akin to a fortress.
One such big personality was legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, instrumental to nearly all of United’s success in the last few decades, his departure back in 2013 marked the end of the fear factor once felt at Old Trafford. A myriad of managers since, all who didn’t quite seem to fit the bill, meant that teams were no longer afraid to play at Old Trafford.
It’s then only fitting that one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s own signings is now leading United forward as manager in the form of Solskjaer. Over his relatively short reign so far, Solskjaer has steadily assembled a team more like the United quality of old, playing football United fans want to see.
The stellar additions of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane this summer only adds to the positivity brewing, Varane perhaps allowing United to play more on the front foot with the extra defensive stability he brings. All of this considered, the signings, the magic of returning fans and an early favourable run, it could finally be the season where Old Trafford returns to being the fortress it once was, and United finally get to lift the Premier League once more.
Written by Sam Wilson