Eleven points adrift of safety ahead of their first match of 2021 and still without a win since returning to action in September, it is easy to understand why Chris Wilder’s side are being told to prepare for relegation only six months after achieving a ninth placed finish.
Yet, in these strange times, United must continue to believe something even stranger can happen on the football pitch. Despite the odds, and indeed the form book, seemingly being stacked against them.
In any other season, United would already be dead and buried. The gap between themselves and 17th place, currently occupied by Brighton and Hove Albion, would surely have been even bigger than it is now.
But with the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to cause disruption to the fixture schedule, and wreak havoc with even the biggest and the best clubs’ strive to achieve anything which resembles their usual levels of consistency, one or two wins, coupled with a few favourable results elsewhere, could easily ensure the table has a very different complexion come the middle of next month than it does right now.
Admittedly, there are a whole host of things United can and should be doing better. Injuries to key players have undoubtedly been an issue, with Jack O’Connell’s absence in particular causing a real problem. Too many senior members of the squad, the ones who fuelled last term’s challenge for Europe, have underperformed and lost form. As every defeat stacks up - United have lost 14 and draw two of their 16 outings so far - so confidence drains away, while their failure to convert chances remains a cause for concern and must be addressed immediately.
But with the overwhelming majority of their losses coming via a single goal, United clearly have a platform to build on. This, no matter what they doom mongers might say, isn’t a team which is being blown away every single week. Small improvements, a few adjustments here and there coupled with some new faces during the transfer window, could potentially make a big difference.
With matches still being staged behind closed doors, United must achieve all this without the backing of a passionate and vociferous crowd. At the beginning of his reign, before delivering the first of two promotions, Wilder made no secret of the fact that the relationship between the team and the terraces would underpin everything he did at Bramall Lane. Social distancing restrictions imposed because of the global health crisis have robbed United of one of their most powerful weapons.
But in a sense, as more and more folk write them off, a group which has made a habit of beating the odds could find it easier to overcome one of the biggest obstacles standing between themselves and what would be a remarkable march towards survival. Adversity, and the opportunity to prove people wrong, has appealed to the personality of Wilder’s squad in the past.