It is unfortunate but quite in sync with the progress of the premier league that in the season when Manchester United have shown the biggest progress since the days of Sir Alex, the league is at its most competitive state.
Such is the competition this year that according to EuroClubIndex.com
the club is projected to finish 6th with all of 71 points, three points off the Champions League.
It's easy to see how United will eventually be made to pay for all those draws in games when they've been utterly dominant. Had United justifiably picked up maximum points against Burnley, Stoke City (twice), Arsenal and at home to West Ham, the side could easily be challenging Chelsea for the league Championship. As it stands, the club is somewhere in between an over-reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a general profligacy infront of goal.
Perhaps what could prove to be more dear to the club is that they are 6th in the top six mini-league for results against the other members of the top six. This despite having already had games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool at Old Trafford. With the Manchester derby likely to be postponed if and when the club make the EFL Cup final, United's run in to the end of the season between April and May will feature trips to the Emirates, the Etihad, White Harte Lane with Chelsea also due to Old Trafford in between.
That run of games is essentially a 12 point swing that could go either way. Given United's form, or lack of it, against the top eight sides, it is results between now and the start of April that will determine if United have given themselves a fighting chance for the run in. However, the competitiveness of the current division means that even another run of wins could still see United struggle to get into the top four.
The only factor season projections can't really account for is results against the other members of the top six. It could therefore mean that United will have to beat each of their rivals within that last month of the season to replace them in the elite positions. A three points gap between 4th and 6th come May means that even one positive result in the 'unexpected' category could be enough to upset the odds. It's a complex metric that doesn't of course factor in the state of the season at the time. For all we know United could be looking at a Europa League final at the time which would by itself be a potential Champions League ticket.
Ultimately, the immediate challenge for the club is to find a way to curb their wastefulness infront of goal. United average 20 shots on goal per game, a marked improvement from the days of Louis van Gaal, but you wouldn't know it from the number of goals the club has scored. Ruthlessness is currently the difference between United in 6th and a genuine title challenge.