Manchester United’s latest slump comes as no surprise in season of boom and bust

It’s now much easier to understand why, even in the dressing room, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t talking up a title challenge when Manchester United were top of the league. The wonder from some around the club is whether there was an element of self-fulfilling prophecy about that.

United, in more than a few ways, have played themselves into a slog.

They drew with Crystal Palace 0-0 on Wednesday night and the contrast between the leaders City, and the shift since the last Manchester derby ahead of this weekend’s reunion, couldn’t be more striking – except for the fact that was also 0-0. Such scorelines have almost become as much of a trend for United as winning has for Manchester City.

It is as if United being top of the league only served as motivation for one of the teams. City have gone into overdrive since then. United have a mere two wins in the past eight… and so many blanks.

One of the most relevant factors is of course simply that Pep Guardiola has displayed his genius. It’s possible, however, that Solskjaer – and thereby his team – are just levelling out.

The Norwegian has broadly done a decent job with United so far, even if much still depends on the outcome of this season. There have been some really good peaks, and he has creditably arrested the times when it looked like it could descend into something ruinous. He has made United a competitive side again.

There are bigger questions from that, though, that a derby against City only put into greater focus.

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United should be more than competitive. They are one of the few clubs in the world with the resources to challenge their neighbours, in an issue of inequality that is becoming a worry for the game as a whole.

Sure, part of City’s record is because they have a manager in Guardiola who can maximise the club’s ample resources, but that’s what the club will do: pay for the best in the world. Are United doing that?

Over two years into Solskjaer’s tenure, we still have no idea how good a manager he really is. It is still impossible to say he is anywhere close to the elite. Ed Woodward is still persisting with him largely based on his own faith in the man. Is that really the way to bridge the gap to this City?

If there remains an element of the unknown about that, the last few weeks have emphasised weaknesses of Solskjaer’s time that should by now be well known.

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One is the problem of streaks. United are one of the worst in the league for this. The way they inevitably go from hugely impressive runs to dismal spells almost feels like it’s becoming illogical now, as much as predictable.

Some of that may be down to how Solskjaer coaches, however, if also the rigours of this situation. Much has been made of United’s attacking game, and their dependence on star individuals. When those individuals are on form, everything is fine. The flip side is that it can mean Solskjaer overplays them, which is exactly what has happened. Marcus Rashford has appeared in all 42 games this season, Bruno Fernandes in 40. It is why some of the otherwise fair arguments about the hectic calendar only go so far. Was there really any need to play Fernandes in the second leg against Real Sociedad after winning the first 4-0?

Is it any wonder he and Rashford look so gassed? It makes it even less of a surprise that United have now drawn so many blanks. There isn’t the system to fall back on in the manner City do.

There has also been the conservatism in games against the rest of the ‘big six’, almost a stand-offishness. It could be said they have directly cost United in the gap to City, except it’s impossible not to think that will only widen over the next few weeks.

It all means that a team which looked like they had the potential to be title challengers have now levelled out, for what looks a real scrap for top four.

A defeat against City on Sunday would suddenly put them in a real pressurised situation. It is one game, funnily enough, where they’d gladly take another dull 0-0. That is how much things have slipped from top spot.

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