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There's a simple reason for Man United's dramatic loss of form

The out-of-sorts Red Devils have come up against good teams on a consistent basis of late.

Man United players react during the Everton defeat.
Man United players react during the Everton defeat.
Image: Martin Rickett

NOT ONLY HAS the 2018-19 Premier League season produced what is widely regarded as the most compelling title races for years, it has also featured one of English football’s most fascinating subplots in recent memory.

Manchester United’s unpredictable form has left fans bewildered while making several pundits look a little foolish for their knee-jerk sweeping pronouncements on the club’s health at various points in the season.

Tonight, they face a Manchester City outfit aiming to reclaim top spot and stay on course to win the title in what looks to be the most difficult of the reigning Premier League champions’ remaining fixtures (Burnley, Leicester and Brighton also await them in the league).

And while a mid-season blip aside, City’s form this season has been almost flawless, United’s displays in recent weeks have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The beginning of Solkjaer’s reign could not have turned out much better. Under the Norwegian, they won 14, drew two and lost just once during the manager’s first 17 matches in charge. That record was better than any other Premier League side within that period.

On the strength of those results, Solskjaer went from temporary to permanent boss, an outcome that appeared highly unlikely when he was hired seemingly as a stop gap following the disastrous end to the Jose Mourinho era.

Should they suffer defeat at Old Trafford this evening, it will be seven defeats in nine for the Red Devils, exacerbating an already difficult week that saw them suffer a humiliating 4-0 loss to Everton on Sunday.

The humbling setback also completed an extraordinary shift in the narrative surrounding Solskjaer. On the back of his excellent start, the coach had been hailed as resurrecting the ‘old’ Manchester United and bringing back a brand of football with which the club’s supporters could supposedly identify.

Now, their sudden decline has been so stark that pundits such as Red Devils legend Gary Neville are feeling the need to emphasise the importance of the board sticking with Solskjaer, amid speculation they could panic and show him the exit door ahead of a crucial summer in which the club’s recruitment must be more astute than it has been in recent years.

Many factors have been blamed for this sudden spectacular implosion — the uncertain future of star players, including David de Gea and Paul Pogba, the new manager ‘bounce’ gradually dissipating, and players not running enough (despite the fact that, per the BBC, United have run less than their opponents in 15 of Solskjaer 17 Premier League games in charge, so it was a recurring feature in their successful period too).

The most obvious explanation, however, is essentially that United have had a recent tough run of fixtures. Consider the six matches they have lost: Wolves (twice), Barcelona (twice), Arsenal and Everton. The Barca and Gunners sides would be strong enough to trouble United teams of any era, including Solskjaer’s famous ’99 treble winners. Everton and Wolves, meanwhile, are not top-six contenders, but they are arguably the best of the rest, in terms of what the Premier League has to offer.

Contrast that inept showing with United’s early form. They beat Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle, Tottenham, Brighton, Leicester, Fulham, Crystal Palace and Southampton in the Premier League. They also dumped Reading, Chelsea and Arsenal out of the FA Cup, and most famously triumphed in the Champions League against PSG.

With the exception of Spurs, every side they beat on their Premier League run was in the bottom half of the table at the time. The Tottenham victory, by far their best domestic result, was earned thanks to a mixture of superb goalkeeping by De Gea and poor finishing from their opponents. The wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, as impressive as they were, came with the caveat that they took place in the FA Cup, which is no longer the priority that it once was for the big sides. And the sterling triumph in Paris, which Solskjaer was deservedly given huge credit for, was as much due to the hosts’ incompetence as it was down to United’s remarkable resilience on the night.

So quite simply, Solskjaer’s men are struggling right now because they are consistently coming up against good sides amid high stakes, whereas before, it was not the case.

Meanwhile, luck was on their side previously — De Gea’s exceptional performance versus Spurs, Liverpool’s failure to take their chances amid an unusual and extremely stop-start game at Old Trafford, the controversial VAR call in France. Now, the breaks are not going their way so readily — the failure to make their sporadic dominant spells against Barca, Wolves and Arsenal count, as well as the injuries and suspensions to important players at vital moments.

In addition, De Gea, having consolidated his reputation as the Premier League’s best goalkeeper in the early part of Solskjaer’s reign, has suddenly looked unconvincing in recent matches — he was partially at fault for goals against Barca, Everton and Arsenal.

The Red Devils are not as awful as results of late suggest, nor are they as brilliant 14 wins in 17 indicated. They sit sixth in the table and that position is befitting of their current level. The fact that they trail City by 22 points is also an accurate reflection of the present gulf in class between the two Manchester sides.

Initially, United were breaking the right kind of records — Solskjaer had the best-ever start of any manager at a Premier League club. Now, they are making history for the wrong reasons — United have lost five consecutive away games for the first time since 1981, they have gone 11 matches on the trot without a clean sheet for the first time since 1998 and the 48 goals they have conceded is their worst tally since the 1978-79 campaign (63).

It has been such a crazy season at Old Trafford, however, that it would feel almost fitting if the Red Devils were to defy their recent dire form tonight and put a serious dent in City’s title chances.

You can watch tonight’s City-United game on Sky Sports Main Event (kick-off: 8pm) or follow The42′s liveblog of the match.

Subscribe to our new podcast, The42 Rugby Weekly, here:

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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