Marcus Rashford #10 of Manchester United (file pic). Alamy Stock Photo

Marcus Rashford the epitome of Man United's unpredictability

The Red Devils face a big test against the reigning Premier League champions later today.

MANCHESTER UNITED are surely the most unpredictable team in the Premier League right now and that is perhaps their biggest problem.

Ahead of today’s clash with rivals Man City at Old Trafford, a home win does not seem inconceivable, and yet a hammering at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s side appears just as easy to envisage.

Watching United this season can be reminiscent of the old Tottenham before Ange Postecoglou came along — capable of brilliance but also incredibly flaky.

A loss to City today would make it five wins and five losses so far — a fittingly average return of 50% to start the season.

Their results against City in recent times emphasise the extreme inconsistency that has characterised the Red Devils’ performances more or less continuously since the end of the Alex Ferguson era.

Last season, United beat their neighbours 2-1 at home but were ripped to shreds away, losing 6-3 in a result that actually flattered the visitors.

The previous season, they lost 2-0 at home and 4-1 away. In 2020-21, they won 2-0 away and drew 0-0 at home and they did the double over City in 2019-20, having lost both games by an aggregate of 5-1 in 2018-19. They also lost one and won one in the 2017-18 season.

Admittedly, on the whole, this record is creditable: five wins, six losses and one draw is better than most Premier League teams have fared against Pep Guardiola’s side in recent seasons.

Yet these stats do not reflect the wider picture by any means.

United most recently finished ahead of City in the table in the 2012-13 season, when their iconic manager Alex Ferguson made it 13 titles in 21 seasons and duly retired.

Since then, despite some close encounters in one-off games, the rivalry has been embarrassingly one-sided overall, with massive points differences often evident between the clubs amid the conclusion of the last 10 seasons. Last year, for example, the gap between the two was 14 points.

The early signs suggest the usual theme will recur this year — after nine games, City sit third in the table, six points ahead of United in eighth.

What makes it particularly galling for fans of the club is that Erik ten Hag’s side have often shown they are capable of competing with City in one-off games.

It is maintaining this level over the course of a long, hard season that has been the primary issue.

Ahead of this afternoon’s clash, in a pre-match interview, the experienced City defender Kyle Walker told reporters the team would have to be wary of his England teammate Marcus Rashford.

“I think Marcus has shown over the years that he’s the sort of player who can create problems for any side if they don’t match him,” Walker said.

“He’s been important for both United and England since he was a teenager because of the threat he offers to any team he’s in. He’s got a lot of different qualities and we know he can be dangerous at the weekend.”

This is a fair assessment, indeed Rashford scored an 82nd-minute winner the last time City came to Old Trafford, albeit in controversial circumstances.

Yet in many ways, Rashford has been part of the problem for United.

Last season was arguably the 25-year-old’s best in a Red Devils shirt — 17 goals in 35 appearances was an impressive tally.

It was suggested that Rashford had flourished with greater responsibility on his shoulders following Cristiano Ronaldo’s acrimonious departure from the club.

Previously, the hometown hero had blown hot and cold. In the season before, he had found the net just four times in 25 appearances.

The attacker is now in his ninth season as a Premier League player — in four of those, he has failed to break double figures, in two he has barely done so (scoring 10 and 11 in 2019 and 2021 respectively), and twice he has had what you could describe as satisfactory campaigns, scoring 17 in both instances.

Rashford is an undeniably talented player and there is more to his game than just goals, but for a club with Man United’s aspirations, it could be argued that he has not done enough to justify his star status.

This season, he has shown signs of his old, inconsistent self, scoring just once in nine Premier League appearances and twice in 16 games overall.

He is far from the only culprit, of course.

Everywhere you look in United’s squad, there are players who can be a 10/10 one week and a 5/10 the next — Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes, Casemiro, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Martial are among the individuals who come under this category.

Conversely, with City, the likes of Rodri, Kevin De Bruyne, Erling Haaland, Ederson and Ruben Dias simply do not have off seasons or long periods where they are out of form.

Rashford could score today, Maguire might produce a man-of-the-match performance and United could pull off an improbable victory.

It’s one of the better times to be facing last season’s treble winners, who are without star man De Bruyne and have lost two of their last three Premier League matches in addition to recently being dumped out of the League Cup by Newcastle.

But don’t let a one-off result fool you, United fans have become accustomed to false dawns and regardless of what happens this afternoon, a chasm evidently continues to separate these two illustrious clubs with contrasting fortunes.

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