In Depth

Man United go top – but title hopes depend on red October

United are top of the Premier League for the first time since the Fergie era, but Louis van Gaal is playing it cool for now

Manchester United overhauled their 'noisy neighbours' Manchester City to return to the top of the Premier League for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club after his 13th league title in May 2013.

An efficient 3-0 win against Sunderland was indicative of the type of performance that has led many to believe Louis van Gaal's team may be genuine title contenders this season.

Wayne Rooney scored his first league goal for 999 minutes to help United on their way; the performances of Juan Mata, who scored twice, and Daley Blind at centre-back that caught the eye; and David de Gea was imperious in goal once again. 

No-one is getting carried away at Old Trafford however. "We have a good team, but we can win and lose," said manager Louis van Gaal on Saturday.

"Next week we have Arsenal away and I think it is one of the most difficult teams to beat in the Premier League, but we won there last year, so it is possible."

The Daily Telegraph notes the restraint shown by the United players and managers at finding themselves top of the pile at the end of September: "If anything claiming top spot was met with a collective shrug" writes Mark Ogden. "A one point lead now is promising, but any United supporters who risk becoming intoxicated by their current position should perhaps wait until the end of October before planning a party in May."

But others believe they have genuine title aspirations. "It is still early but they should be taken seriously as contenders," says Jamie Jackson of The Guardian.

So what's the secret to United's reawakening? And most importantly can they keep it up?

Fixed defence

Much of United's success this season has been attributed to the return of David de Gea. The Spaniard was the subject of intense transfer speculation over the summer but his move to Real Madrid collapsed on deadline day. He has now been restored to the United starting line-up with a new contract under his belt, and seems to be returning to the kind of form which has seen him win United's player of the season award for two years running. 

Alongside this, the unlikely pairing of Chris Smalling and Blind at the back has provided United with what Mark Ogden of the Telegraph calls "an impressive central defensive partnership". Even Luke Shaw's injury doesn't seem to have phased the backline with Matteo Darmian proving as comfortable at left back as he was on the right-hand side.

Martial arts

The signing of a 19-year-old for a record breaking fee so close to transfer deadline day had alarm bells ringing for many United fans. Now, with four goals in his first five appearances, the acquisition of Anthony Martial appears to be something of a masterstroke. Martial's ability to stretch defences, who are fearful of his pace, is complemented by talent for keeping the ball – demonstrated perfectly when he held off two defenders to provide the perfect cross for Rooney's opener.

Fans at the Theatre of Dreams will be fearful he is not another Federico Macheda - who made an equally startling impact before fading away - but the noises coming out of the United camp suggest that he is under no pressure, reports The Guardian. "He's a 19-year-old lad who doesn't speak English. Moving over to France from England with a young family, so we have to understand that, but the start he's had has been incredible," Rooney said after the Sunderland game.

Trouble ahead?

Most experts agree that United's title credentials will be much clearer come the end of October. Next Sunday's trip to the Emirates begins a month where they play only one game at home – against their local rivals Manchester City – and face testing trips to Everton, CSKA Moscow and Crystal Palace.

While United's rivals stuttered on the weekend, neither Chelsea nor Manchester City face as testing an October and Mourinho's men showed signs of turning things around in their comeback against Newcastle.

But "if it proves to be a red October, United will legitimately be considered as title contenders," says Ogden of the Telegraph.

Phil McNulty in his BBC column argues that for United "realistically the odds are still against [a title win] with visits to all their serious rivals to come" but for now the league table makes very happy reading for their fans. 

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