Man United's unpredictability means fans should ready for disappointment
Manchester United's 1-0 win over Manchester City on Sunday was the latest of predictable, yet unpredictable, results for Louis van Gaal's side, with the manager developing a habit of winning the games he shouldn't, before losing the games he should win.
While it would be unfair to ignore the fact City were without captain Vincent Kompany and fellow first-choice central defender, Nicolas Otamendi, these absences certainly didn't guarantee a win for United.
For starters, the visitors only had 18-year-old Marcus Rashford playing up front, and nobody could have really expected him to score in his first appearance against City to become the youngest player ever to score in the Manchester derby. After all, Rashford was playing for the U21s at the Etihad just a month earlier and didn't score on that day. While Martin Demichelis is a liability, it's not as if he was faced with a world-class experienced striker, but instead a kid with a couple of hundred minutes of Premier League football under his belt.
Rashford played a blinder though, slotting past England's No. 1 goalkeeper, Joe Hart, after making a mug of Demichelis just past the 15-minute mark. Before half-time, he should have won a penalty to double United's lead, after his pace again left the Argentine defender for dead, only for Michael Oliver, with a perfect view of the foul, to bottle the decision.
The young striker had become the latest of a long line of United academy products to make his debut during Van Gaal's reign. Less than a month earlier, he scored twice against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League, before scoring two more goals against Arsenal three days later.
Danny Welbeck, the last Mancunian to score in the derby, was full of praise for his former Fletcher Moss teammate. While Welbeck wasn't able to fulfil his childhood dream of succeeding at United and spending his entire career at the club, Rashford already looks to have a better chance. He's scored five goals in eight games, while it took Welbeck his first two seasons and 24 appearances to reach the same tally.
City are some way from replicating similar success from their academy though, with eight years having gone by since Sheikh Mansour bought the club. In that time, they have invested over £1 billion in City, while United's owners, the Glazers, have taken £1 billion from the club. United have won three titles in this time, City have won two, and there wasn't a Mancunian in sight for them on derby day.
Kelechi Iheanacho, the Nigerian striker who City signed as an 18-year-old last February, is probably the closest they had to an academy product, given he's played handful of games for the U21s before making the step up this season.
Rashford joined United when he was seven, as did his teammate on derby day, Jesse Lingard, with both of them living the dream at the moment. Van Gaal has been given more than his fair share of credit for bringing through these players, and keeping the record that began in October 1937 alive with at least one academy player featuring in every match day squad.
Van Gaal opted to have a small squad which, with so many players leaving the team, hasn't been able to sustain the huge number of injuries they've suffered. It's probably worth noting that another manager would have bolstered the squad with substandard players, rather than giving youth a chance. Remember when Jose Mourinho signed the likes of Steve Sidwell, Khalid Boulahrouz and Tal Ben Haim to make up the numbers at Chelsea?
Still, United are playing youngsters like Rashford out of necessity, rather than as a part of Van Gaal's grand plan coming to fruition. After allowing Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Javier Hernandez and James Wilson to leave, while only bringing Anthony Martial in their place, Rashford is the only other option in light of Wayne Rooney's injury.
So for all the plaudits Van Gaal receives for playing youth and getting back to back wins over Liverpool in the league, beating Arsenal, beating City, and so on, there's no guarantee of United getting a result in their next game.
After a convincing 3-0 win over Everton at Goodison Park earlier this season, you wouldn't put it past United to see a similar scoreline when they face the Merseyside club at Old Trafford after the international break, but they could be on the winning or the losing side of that. Predicting what sort of performance or result United will produce is impossible.
There is no consistency in this United team, with different lineups chosen every week, either because of injury, or because of a bizarre tactical approach from Van Gaal. The youngsters are inexperienced, so one can't expect them to perform at the same high level every week. Case in point, Guillermo Varela looking great at right-back for weeks, before being torn apart by Philippe Coutinho and Liverpool in the Europa League.
United fans wrote off their chances of finishing in the top four weeks ago, yet now they find themselves one point away from replacing rivals City. Just as any faith returns, that's when United are their most disappointing, so don't expect them to win any more games any time soon.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.