The world was a very different place eight years ago. Britain was in the European Union, Donald Trump was a businessman and Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge at Old Trafford. Furthermore there was no pandemic (although we obviously did not realise quite how lucky we were to live in a pandemic-free world).
The 2012-13 season is also the last time Manchester United were top of the Premier League after 17 games of the season. The campaign had started as scheduled in August, which meant that the Premier League leaders had played 17 games by 15 December. United were top by six points ahead of Manchester City.
Liverpool were down in 12th, on the back of a 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa and already 20 points behind United, Brendan Rodgers trying to get his team into shape having replaced Kenny Dalglish in the summer and signed Fabio Borini, Joe Allen and Oussama Assaidi in the summer window. Stoke were ninth, having lost the same amount of games as United – three – but drawn too many to seriously threaten the top four.
Little did we know that it would take United so long to be serious title contenders but there they are, going into Sunday’s game against Liverpool three points clear of the champions. The win at Burnley on Tuesday night was hugely impressive, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team in complete control until the final few minutes.
Paul Pogba was playing like the player who led France to win the World Cup, Bruno Fernandes was running the show from a more forward position in midfield and Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani offered real pace and menace up front. Harry Maguire was a rock in defence.
It is to Solskjær’s immense credit that he has got the team to gel and perform the way they have done since the home defeat to Arsenal on 1 November. His achievement, however, is not as impressive as Ferguson’s in his last season in charge. The fact is that the Norwegian has, on paper, a better squad.
By 2012 Ferguson had denounced the idea of a first XI, and changed his team constantly but, based on appearances, the team that best represents United in 2012-13 is: De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Carrick, Cleverley; Valencia, Rooney, Young; Van Persie.
Compare that with the team that Solskjær put on the pitch at Turf Moor: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Bailly, Maguire, Shaw; Pogba, Matic; Rashford, Fernandes, Martial; Cavani.
There are some similarities between the two seasons. Both teams are very dependent on one player – Fernandes now and Robin van Persie then. Van Persie was irresistible in his first season at Old Trafford – he won the Golden Boot for the second successive campaign, but this time he won the league too. He scored key goals, brilliant goals and timely goals, including winners at Anfield and the Etihad and his side’s second in a 3-2 win at European champions Chelsea. It is extremely unlikely that United would have won the league without him.
The Dutchman was perhaps even more important than Fernandes, but the Portuguese’s influence on the players around him has been much greater. Van Persie did not really improve anyone; he just dragged them to one last league title.
There were several late dramatic victories, Ferguson winning 3-2 at Manchester City with that stoppage-time Van Persie goal, Solskjær’s side turning things around at Southampton with the same scoreline in November – as well as some more mundane one-goal wins.
One main difference, however, is the amount of experience Ferguson’s side had. They were serial winners and knew exactly what they needed to do to win the league. Although performances were not always of the highest standard, the United team of 2012-13 did pick up a lot of points. At this stage they had 42, six more than 2020-21, having won 14 of their 17 games, three more than now. They faded towards the end but only because they had already effectively won. At the end of March they had 77 points from 30 games: P25 D2 L3.
The intriguing thing with the current United team is that it feels as if it is on its way up with several young players who have not yet peaked (Rashford, Aaron Wan-Bissaka) or who should be at their absolute best (Pogba, Fernandes, Martial and Harry Maguire).
By the end of the 2012-13 season Nemanja Vidic was 31, Rio Ferdinand 34, Patrice Evra 32, Michael Carrick 31, Paul Scholes 38, Ryan Giggs 39 and Van Persie 29. Even the younger players (Rooney and Valencia at 27, Nani at 26, even Rafael at 22) had peaked, though this was not apparent at the time. For one reason or another, most never recovered from Ferguson’s retirement.
Age can be a disadvantage as well as an advantage though. What Ferguson’s title-winners had in abundance was experience.
Every team needs to win their first title and there is no reason why United cannot win the Premier League this season. For that to happen, though, they need to win the big games and so far this season they have failed to beat any team from the so-called Big Six, as well as Leicester.
We will know more about whether Solskjær’s men have all the tools needed to finish top at the end of the season on Sunday night.