It was a point, which is more than Chelsea or Arsenal earned over the weekend, but under the circumstances, it was not enough. It was a result etched in the face of Michael Owen, who having scored his first Premier League goal since February to salvage a draw, talked only of disappointment. It was reflected in the play of Wayne Rooney, which was once so natural and effervescent but is now stilted and stammering.
For Carlo Ancelotti, who must have expected to feel the hot breath of Manchester United on his neck, this was a soothing result after Chelsea's defeat at Eastlands and perhaps it was not coincidental that Alex Ferguson left the Reebok Stadium without speaking to his club's own television station.
Yet to focus solely on Manchester United's failings would be as wrong as stating that the only reason West Bromwich Albion won at the Emirates was that Arsenal do not possess a high-class goalkeeper. Bolton drew this match and might have won it, not because Manchester United were irredeemably weak but because they played supremely well.
Only once since 1978 have Bolton won this Lancashire derby on their own ground but they were twice in the lead and had Johan Elmander, who had dispossessed Jonny Evans and taken the ball beautifully past Nemanja Vidic, shown slightly more composure, they would have snatched a victory, against the odds but not the run of play.
Owen Coyle began his career as a Premier League manager by overseeing Burnley's defeat of Manchester United at Turf Moor and he had come very close to a repetition. Sam Allardyce, the architect of Bolton as a force in top-flight football, was at the Reebok and he would have recognised Zat Knight's opener – a delicate flick from a Martin Petrov corner that not even Patrice Evra, flinging himself full length on the line, could stop.
However, Bolton's second was from another coaching manual entirely. Chung-yong Lee took a long cross-field pass languidly down and found Elmander who chested the ball towards Martin Petrov. United's full-back, John O'Shea, was out of position and Ji-sung Park, on the field because of a hamstring strain that will keep Ryan Giggs out for the next couple of weeks, must have expected the Bulgarian to turn on to his left foot. As Petrov explained afterwards, he had never previously scored with his right. He has now.
"Bolton Wanderers have been perceived in a certain way and tarred with a certain tag," said Coyle afterwards. "Little by little, bit by bit, we are changing people's opinions. I think we showed there is more than one dimension to our play."
United can play in several dimensions, summed up by the banner behind one of the goals that declared: "Not Arrogant, Just Better." There were several moves that proved the slogan. Nani's equaliser was a fabulous run that saw four white shirts fall away in front of him. The speed of his feet and the brilliance of his shot had echoes of Cristiano Ronaldo. Later, he raced to the byline, recovered the ball and promptly nutmegged Paul Robinson.
Giggs then delivered the kind of chip that would have graced the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. Owen's intervention to pull the match back to 2-2 seemed fortuitous until you realise that he has been scoring with this kind of leaping header since his days at the Liverpool Academy under Steve Heighway.
However, there are cracks in the edifice. Rio Ferdinand, still nominally England's best centre-half, watched from the stands. Evans, a defender of real promise, appears to have lost his touch and Manchester United have now conceded seven times in three away games, none of which they have won. On Wednesday, they face Valencia, top of La Liga, in the Mestalla.
And then there was Rooney. Despite the fact that this was nominally a derby, the reception he received was not particularly intimidating apart from the odd chorus of: "You couldn't score in a brothel", although the alleged deed with the call girl was carried out in a Salford hotel room.
There was one shot that skimmed the top of Jussi Jaaskelainen's bar but, that apart, nothing. It is impossible to know whether the crisis in his private life is infecting his play but there appear to be demons dancing in the football part of his brain.
There are some sportsmen for whom the game is a release from their other life – Lee Bowyer never performed better for Leeds than during his trial for affray. However, if a sportsman as ruthlessly single-minded as Tiger Woods can be dragged down to the ranks of the ordinary in the wake of a scandal, then Rooney is not exempt. Once, he punched the ball away, overcome by frustration.
He spent the final hour of the game nursing an injured ankle, although this was not the reason he was substituted. "Wayne has been playing with a bit of a knock for a couple of weeks," said Manchester United's assistant manager, Mike Phelan. "He wasn't getting into the areas we wanted him to and he wasn't getting chances so we had to change it. Bringing on Michael Owen did change it."
Bolton Wanderers 4-1-3-2: Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Knight, Ricketts, Robinson; Muamba (M Davies 63); Lee (Blake, 90), Holden, Petrov (Taylor 90); K Davies, Elmander. Substitutes not used Bogdan (gk), Klasnic, Alonso, Moreno. Booked M Davies. Manchester United 4-4-2: Van der Sar; O'Shea, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Nani, Fletcher (Owen, 71), Scholes, Giggs (Park, 54); Rooney (Macheda, 62), Berbatov. Substitutes not used Kuszczak (gk), Anderson, Smalling, R da Silva.
Booked Vidic, Scholes. Man of the match Nani.
Possession Bolton 42% Man United 58%
Shots on target Bolton 9 Man United 5
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Attendance 23,926. Match rating 8/10.Reuse content