After a somewhat shaky start to the season, United have steadily climbed up the table and head into their next Premier League game level on 33 points with defending champions Liverpool, who have played a game more.
Indeed, ever since the start of 2020-21 United have been playing catch-up due to their involvement in the extended Europa League campaign last term, and Tuesday’s contest will finally see them back on level footing in terms of matches played.
Once English football’s leading power under Alex Ferguson, United have spent just 51 days top of the table since the Scottish manager retired in 2013.
The last time they finished a day at the summit was the very first of the 2018-19 season after beating Leicester City 2-1 – their meeting was the only game that day, and United were knocked off top spot by the end of that weekend.
Solskjaer was eager to play down the importance of being top in January, though he did accept United have to take this chance to confirm themselves as challengers again.
“We’re better off this season than we were at this stage last season; we’ve scored more goals, won more games, played better football,” he told reporters on Monday. “Nobody remembers who’s top on January 12, and for us it’s about developing the team – we’re progressing and we’ve shown we can bounce back from disappointment.
“We’re improving. It’s been since [Ferguson] left [that United challenged]. We’ve been second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth seventh, so it’s up to us to establish ourselves among the top four. We’ve only been there three times since Ferguson left.”
It was then put to Solskjaer that the inevitable comparisons of every Man United team with Ferguson’s era might be unfair, and the Norwegian seemingly agreed, adamant the Premier League is an entirely different landscape in 2021.
“It’s a different ball game to when I was a player,” he said. “We were disappointed if we didn’t win the league. But now so many teams consider themselves candidates.
“The league table doesn’t really matter now, you pick up points and when you get to March, April, that’s when the league is going to be decided.
“We knew this would be a difficult season for us, we had to catch up. I said we needed to hang in there, but that’s not what I meant.
“I meant we had to pick up points and get performances right, don’t let teams run away with it. We’ve done well.”
The omens look good for United ahead of their trip to Turf Moor – they are unbeaten on the road in the top flight in 16 games and Burnley have not won successive league meetings with the Red Devils since 1968.
Their next game after Burnley is a mouth-watering clash with Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday.