Reliance on Bruno Fernandes causes problems for Manchester United | Jonathan Wilson

When Leicester cut down on his freedom it was clear once more that United rely on two or three key players

At some level, this game happened. In a sense it was perfect fare for a bleary Boxing Day lunchtime. It was engaging enough without ever being especially demanding, and if you did happen to doze off for quarter of an hour or so you wouldn’t have missed anything overly consequential. It certainly didn’t answer any questions. We still don’t know how good Leicester or Manchester United are or whether either is remotely capable of sustaining a title challenge.

Both sides have had good patches this season, but neither has entirely convinced, a pattern this game distilled perfectly. No sooner had one narrative begun to take control than another rose up to deflect it off course. Both sides have been inconsistent. Both have been better away from home. Both like to play on the break. United had gone behind in all six previous Premier League away games this season but won them all; here they took the lead twice and ended up drawing.

Given the way both sides prefer to play on the counter this could have been one of those non-games that has started to crop up with increasing frequency in the Premier League, when teams are so determined not to get caught by passes played in behind them they may as well just leave the ball in the centre and sit in their own halves.

United had been involved in games like that against Chelsea and Manchester City and there were stretches of this one, particularly just after half-time, that threatened to subside into that sort of paralysis.

That it did not was largely down to Leicester’s willingness to take the game to United. That kept the game bubbling, but it also exposed them. Counterattacking excellence aside, the defining trait of United this season has been their reliance on Bruno Fernandes for creativity.

He caused major problems early on, probing the inside-left channel and linking with Marcus Rashford. He scored United’s second, it was his cross that a weirdly unmarked Rashford headed over in the second minute and then his toe-end that created the opening for the first goal.

That Fernandes has been directly involved in more than half of United’s 60 goals since he arrived at the end of January, either scoring or registering the assist, is one of those double-edged statistics. On the one hand it is hugely impressive, a mark of his great quality, but on the other it does indicate the extent to which United play through him and how dependent they are on him playing well.

It was notable that as James Justin tucked in, closing off the space he had been exploiting, Fernandes’s influence waned and United faded until the arrival of Edinson Cavani gave them a fresh jolt of life. At 33, Cavani remains fit and sharp, but his great strength is his game intelligence. Anthony Martial is quicker and so suits the gameplan of playing on the break more naturally, but Cavani’s movement, his capacity to sniff out space, adds a level of menace United often lack.

When Cavani dropped off to receive Eric Bailly’s pass after 79 minutes, no Leicester player went with him, giving him time to turn and feed Fernandes. Jonny Evans, once again, was left looking lonely and confused, from a Leicester point of view the leitmotif of the game.

That was Cavani’s fifth direct involvement in a goal off the bench this season, at least two more than any other substitute. But having two intelligent and in-form players is not enough. It is a strength of United’s to sit deep and hold the opposition at arm’s length, but Leicester had enough wit to find two equalisers.

Fernandes was at fault for the first, caught in possession by Wilfred Ndidi, and Scott McTominay then seemed oddly hesitant in closing down Harvey Barnes, allowing him to shoot past a slightly unsighted David de Gea.

The second was even worse from a United point of view, Jamie Vardy being gifted space in the box to meet an Ayoze Pérez cut-back, his scuffed finish dribbling in off Axel Tuanzebe.

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All of which means what, exactly? That United have some very good players and – if allowed to play their way – can be extremely dangerous, but that they remain reliant on two or three key players and are prone to moments of inexplicable doziness. And that Leicester, for whom this was a first draw of the season, have some clever and quick forwards but also a defence that is not to be relied upon?

They are not alone. Inconsistency has been the major feature of the first four months of this season. Which is great in terms of intrigue, but it also means that if one team can put a run together – and Liverpool are looking increasingly ominous – the prospect of a competitive title race could fade fast.

Contributor

Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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