A second consecutive 0-0 draw in four days slashed any hopes Manchester United had of making the Premier League title fight a two-horse race.
Back-to-back goalless draws against Chelsea and Crystal Palace means the gap between United and runaway leaders Manchester City sits at 14 points. Following Wednesday’s stalemate at Selhurst Park, we examine why their progress has stunted to such an extent.
Manchester United Struggling to Break Down Obdurate Defences
A Lack of Collective Contributions From Attacking Players Highlights Burden on Bruno Fernandes
Since looking like genuine title contenders in the New Year, the Red Devils have struggled to consistently win matches, evident through four draws in their past five league matches.
They were like a speeding express train against Southampton, all parts efficient and impressive on their way to that 9-0 win at the start of February. Fast forward to a damp squib of a draw in south-east London, and United looked more like a spluttering Northern locomotive pleading for an upgrade.
Once again, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s excessive dependence on Bruno Fernandes did not pay dividends.
Solskjaer’s desire to involve his Portuguese playmaker to the nth degree may seem like a good plan, given Fernandes’ outstanding quality but it has inhibited the influence that others, such as Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood have on proceedings.
Rashford‘s tally of 17 goal involvements in 27 league appearances is an impressive but misleading statistic. Of those 17, only five have come in 12 appearances since the start of 2021, as many contributions as he managed in four matches before the end of the year.
Having made demonstrable progress as an attacking unit towards the back end of last term during Project Restart, the likes of Greenwood and Anthony Martial have been peripheral figures as opposed to potent threats in the final third. Just when it seemed like their attackers were beginning to gel, the forward options have found themselves in a sticky situation once again.
Having elected to place such a burden on Fernandes’ shoulders, Solskjaer cannot expect this side to evolve if they are a one-man-band. Yet, so far this season, the Norwegian has shown a reluctance to implement tactical tweaks.
Dip in Form and Lack of Goals
This has been most apparent in games against the “top six”. United’s recent 0-0 draw away to Chelsea was the sixth match in a row in which they failed to score against such an opponent. The same scoreline at Palace was also, incidentally, their sixth goalless draw of the season, which is more than any other Premier League team in 2020/21 to date, per Opta.
Their manager’s fear of rolling the dice in big games appears to have seeped through to his players, who now seem content on a safety-first approach rather than imposing themselves on matches with intent as they have done previously.
A lack of authority in key contests could also be down to the absence of Paul Pogba. Although the Frenchman’s injury seemed like the perfect opportunity for Donny van de Beek to get some minutes under his belt, Solskjaer has favoured solidity over style, choosing to start Fred and Scott McTominay instead of the Dutchman.
Pogba’s unpredictable style of play that keeps opposition defenders on their heels would certainly be an asset for a Manchester United side that is suddenly struggling in front of goal. With van de Beek struggling to see any action, it is little wonder that the Red Devils are having to turn to Fernandes for inspiration so frequently.
Despite Fernandes’ unquestionable brilliance, the Portuguese international appears to be suffering from fatigue. United’s number ten has played 80 or more minutes in 14 successive Premier League matches, last being taken off before the 75-minute mark in the 6-2 demolition job of Leeds United on December 20.
Most managers would wrap their players in cotton wool around the festive period, when fixtures come thick and fast, but not at Old Trafford. Solskjaer seems to have found a way of making Fernandes’ engine run on a Nokia brick, so strong are his stamina levels in going three months without rest.
Playing your star player into the ground is an outcome Manchester United are risking, but Solskjaer will know the limits of his main man. Like all great long-lasting mobile phones of the 1990s, Fernandes will need a recharge at some point.
Fernandes may be fit and firing, but he is not infallible and Solskjaer must find a way of winning without banking on his ace in the pack. Otherwise, United’s carefully constructed house of cards risks a complete collapse.