It’s a sign of just how quickly Manchester United have improved under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that the Norwegian was fielding questions about a title challenge last week.
United’s caretaker manager was discussing the prospect of catching Manchester City and Liverpool next season, a campaign he is yet to be contracted for at Old Trafford.
If being named permanent manager is simply a matter of when rather than if, Solskjaer has a more pressing matter to attend to if he plans to get United challenging for the top spot in 2019/20.
Last week he said the “foundations” were in place, with increased levels of fitness to carry out the Solskjaer gameplan being the major attribute he’s looking to add this summer.
But any hopes of launching a title challenge next season and closing the gap on City and Liverpool is heavily dependant on how the final eight Premier League games of this season pan out, not simply for picking up momentum to take into the summer and the new season, but for securing a spot in next season’s Champions League, rather than the Europa League.
United could yet win this season’s Champions League and success in Madrid on June 1 would make any discussion over their final Premier League placing irrelevant.
But if Solskjaer doesn’t manage to steer United to European glory as a manager 20 years on from his playing heroics in the Nou Camp, then a top four finish is essential to qualify for the Champions League next season.
That’s not only for the prestige of playing in Europe’s premier club competition, for the possibility of recreating magical nights such as that experienced in Paris a week ago and attracting the highest calibre of new recruits this summer, but also for facilitating a surge towards the top of the Premier League next season.
As City and Liverpool have shown this season, standards are at an all-time high at the top of the table. There is very little room for error now if teams want to maintain a challenge for the Premier League.
That makes coping with the grind of Thursday night football in Europe and Sunday action in the Premier League increasingly difficult. If United were to end up in the Europa League next season it would already be a blow to their title chances next year.
The evidence is there to show just how difficult the top teams have found juggling the Europa League and the Premier League.
Since the top four became a big six in the Premier League the teams who have failed to land Champions League football have struggled to make up ground the following season.
Last season Chelsea and Arsenal ended up with Thursday night football. Both remain in the Europa League and both are locked in the battle for fourth once again this season.
The season before that Arsenal could only finish sixth as they juggled the two competitions. In 2016/17 United won the Europa League, but they could only manage sixth in the Premier League as well. A year later, back in the Champions League, they finished second.
In 2015/16 Tottenham managed to finish third while competing in the Europa League, although that campaign was something of an outlier with Leicester City winning the title. Liverpool only managed eighth as they made the Europa League final.
That 15/16 season was a nadir for Chelsea. They were so bad in finishing 10th they managed to avoid Europe all together. Freed from the demands of the Europa League they improved enough to win the title a season later.
Given the transformation under Solskjaer and the likelihood of new additions in the summer United might have high hopes of closing the gap to City and Liverpool next season, but finishing in the top four this season looks essential to maintaining any title challenge.
The battle for third and fourth is still too close to call at this stage of the season, but if United can claim one of those places then they will head into the summer with momentum and next season’s schedule on their side.