Maybe the Manchester derby will reflect that old adage, that ‘form goes out of the window in big games’.
The more romantic Manchester United fans will have to believe as such, because the form book does not bode well for their side ahead of this Sunday’s trip to the Etihad Stadium.
Another 0-0 draw, against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night, means United have recorded just three wins in the past 10 games since they went top of the Premier League. Now the gap to Manchester City is 14 points and dreams of a title challenge have frittered away before they could barely get started.
Gary Neville summed it up aptly, clearly speaking through gritted teeth while on commentary duty at Selhurst Park when warning United to be careful not to “sleepwalk” into a battle for the top four, which could have been simply avoided.
Neville did not dare go into detail about the ramifications for United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer if their form continues on this trajectory and a top four spot somehow eludes them. But a hungry chasing pack is still breathing down their necks. For the Norwegian and his many backers at United, that thought alone is frightening enough.
There may be some better pieces of news around the corner, though the prospect of playing City — currently on a 21-match winning run — is not among them.
Pep Guardiola’s side have looked unbeatable for months now and, as unpalatable as it sounds, United might be better served putting their energy into some big (and more winnable) games after Sunday’s trip to Eastlands. It won’t work like that of course; there’s no way Solskjaer will cede a game the size of a derby between first and second in the league.
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Manchester United were held to a 0-0 draw by Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players were frustrated for the third goalless game in succession, dropping more points to allow Man City to streak away at the Premier League’s summit, on a poor day for the forwards.
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He will be eager to get Paul Pogba back to fitness, though, at some stage this month.
It does not seem coincidental that United’s form has taken a dive during the Frenchman’s absence with a thigh injury. Since hobbling off with United in front against Everton on February 6th, Solskjaer’s men have scored six goals, conceded five and won just one league game. Let’s not forget he hit crucial winning goals away at Burnley and Fulham to propel United up the league in the first place.
In Pogba’s absence, United have stuck with their customary 4-2-3-1, but their inability to break down disciplined and resolute sides like West Brom and Palace has exposed the shortcomings of that system without the 27-year-old.
Playing two defensive-minded midfielders, in Fred and Nemanja Matic, against Palace was a mistake by Solskjaer. And even though Scott McTominay has a decent goal record this season, he isn’t the man to change that dynamic, despite replacing Fred on Wednesday night. McTominay was poor in the 1-1 draw with the Baggies.
Even when Pogba was fit, he was hardly playing deep in a 4-2-3-1. He was either selected on the left side of an attacking trident behind the striker, or pushed closer to Bruno Fernandes almost as a second No.10.
So, Pogba or not, United have to shift to a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 shape especially against teams like Brighton, Burnley and Fulham — who all come to Old Trafford in the Premier League run-in. Pogba should occupy a role near Fernandes, with Fred probably the most suited to a true defensive midfield role behind the attacking players. Without Pogba, Donny van de Beek really should come into the equation, or else United must turn to Juan Mata.
The bottom line is that only one of Matic, McTominay and Fred is needed in the majority of United games.
If the struggling United forwards cannot shake themselves out of their current malaise, then a change of system — and a shift towards a more attacking mentality — should do the trick. It will certainly mean more service to the frontmen.
As for Pogba’s return, it cannot come soon enough.
United host AC Milan in the first leg of their Europa League last 16 tie next Thursday night, with a league game against West Ham sandwiched between the two legs prior — before a big FA Cup quarter-final at Leicester on March 21st.
Pogba should return to fitness in time for two of those games, in all likelihood.
But Solskjaer cannot play a waiting game depending on one player. He must grasp the nettle and shake things up tactically to fire United back to form. There’s just the small matter of the Manchester derby first.