Manchester United title challenge depends on ending bad habit under Solskjaer
The Premier League fixture list has given Man Utd a daunting run of games in autumn but they have to get points on the board before then.
The announcement of Manchester United's fixtures for the 2021/22 season has focused on the daunting run of games they face in October and November, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have also been handed an opportunity.
United have been given the easiest start of any of their Premier League title rivals and they really should be aiming to be top of the league by the start of October. If they can achieve that then those tricky fixtures suddenly present another opportunity, the chance to turn up the pressure on Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.
The season begins with an Old Trafford date against Leeds, a fixture United won 6-2 last season, before trips to Southampton and Wolves, a home game against Newcastle, a trip to West Ham and then successive home matches against Aston Villa and Everton.
Given the competitiveness of the Premier League next season United really should be aiming to win at least six of those matches, if not seven. Achieve that and the run that sees them face Leicester, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal in six of their next seven games will look a lot more appetising.
But to achieve that United will have to change an unwelcome trend under Solskjaer. Slow starts have plagued them in his two full seasons in charge and it's been an impressive turnaround that has seen them recover to finish third in 2019/20 and second last season.
There were mitigating factors to last season's slow start, with United barely having a pre-season, but they cannot afford to begin slowly for a third successive campaign. If that happens then those fixtures in October and November look terrifying.
Last season United won just two of their first six Premier League games of the season and the campaign before they won just two of their first nine. In Solskjaer's two full seasons United average 1.21 points a game before the clocks go back and then 1.98 points a game after. They're a team who like to play in the dark, by the looks of it.
Those slow starts haven't necessarily derailed United's seasons, although in 2019/20 they spent the entire campaign catching up and only secured Champions League football on the final day of the season. Last term they started slowly but still managed to go top of the league in January.
With this season's schedule looking like a return to normality and City, Chelsea and Liverpool all likely to improve, it could be another year when a points total in the 90s is required to win the title. If that is United's ambition then the first and second games of the season are as important as the 37th or 38th.
It's an easy narrative to consider the action in April and May as more defining than the early weeks in August, but every game and every point will matter in 2021/22. If 30 wins will be required to win the league then letting a couple of easy victories slip by via a slow start can be fatally damaging to a team's title hopes.
Last season United lost at home to Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Arsenal in their first six games. The year before they lost to West Ham and Palace in their first half-dozen games and also dropped points to Wolves and Southampton. That kind of late summer generosity has to be a thing of the past if United are to put themselves in a position to be serious challengers this season.
Those games in October and November certainly look daunting, but that means United have to make hay while the sun shines. And that's something they've not been particularly good at so far under Solskjaer.