In a way, it was the most latter-day Manchester United way for Manchester United to reach a milestone. With a narrow, unattractive 1-0 victory at Burnley on a Tuesday in an empty stadium.
But by picking up the points, United moved ahead of Liverpool in the Premier League standings, sitting first place in the table this late in the season for the first time since 2012-13. That was the last time United won the league, a 13th title in 21 seasons. That was Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge. That was before it all came crashing down, the results disintegrating as the club plummeted in the table and cycled through five managers in just over five years.
Now, after almost eight years in the wilderness, United is back on top in the second half of the campaign. Or at least, it is until Sunday when it faces Liverpool head-to-head. A Liverpool victory would put the Reds back in first place on goal difference.
But even if United’s title prospects remain a tad iffy, this surge – courtesy of nine wins in an 11-match unbeaten run that lifted it from 15th place following a rough start – is worth noting for the conditions in which it has transpired. This is an unusual season in most every way, but some of the specific characteristics of this charge up the table, and Tuesday’s win specifically, reflects that reality.
The strangeness of United’s success is powered by an unbeaten away record, with seven wins in eight games, versus a pedestrian home record. The lack of fans might be a factor here, eroding some of the home-field advantage, but then lots of players swear up and down that the mood in a stadium doesn’t often affect them much.
What’s more, it has all happened under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the one-time interim manager who has been on the precipice of his dismissal so many times. The Norwegian retains a worse winning percentage than his fired predecessor Jose Mourinho, and after two years and change has yet to instill a recognizable philosophy. Nor, for that matter, has he worked out how to prevent the long streaks and swoons his team is prone to.
Yet here he is. Here they are. On top. In spite of it all.
In that sense, it was fitting that Paul Pogba should score the winning goal. For a long time, he was a poster boy for the dysfunction. The World Cup winner was the embodiment of a team that spent and spent and spent, on any talented player it could coax to join an increasingly incoherent club, without ever getting any better. He was bought for a world-record transfer fee and, in spite of leading the side in all manner of meaningful statistics in his first few years, considered a bust, or something close to it. He spent much of last season languishing on the sidelines due to injury, with rumors swirling that he was running out the clock until a summer transfer to Real Madrid that never materialized.
Pogba has restored his influence and in some games his dominance. And his volley, which deflected off two defenders before slipping through Nick Pope’s legs and into the net, felt of a piece with his circuitous journey with the club.
By then, Edinson Cavani had been brought down when clear through on goal but Burnley was spared a red card for a Luke Shaw foul earlier on in the play. And Harry Maguire had an opening goal for United from a splendid header disallowed for climbing up the back of Eric Pieters – a harsh decision.
Still, United remains a club that feels both competent and in disarray somehow. For all the talent that was so expensively assembled, the connective tissue is porous. There are lots of very good players who don’t necessarily complement each other and on some days work out how to play together and on other days don’t.
Lately, there have been enough of those days when things click into place for United to recapture some of its old glory. It’s worth pointing out here that in all those title-winning seasons, United often didn’t look entirely imperious either. And it’s true that it won’t take as much as usual to win the title in this pandemic-disrupted season.
After the final whistle, there were lots of high fives and hugs and smiles among the United players and staff. They are not yet back to their best, or as good as they can be, but those are only opinions. The lone objective takeaway is that United is in first place with almost half the season played.
And if nothing else, the Red Devils are back in the conversation.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More from Yahoo Sports: