MANCHESTER UNITED vs CRYSTAL PALACE
Since the last international break United had taken two points from a possible nine albeit having played the top two sides in the division. With another international break to follow this fixture and then a game at Arsenal it was important that United made the most of a home game against a Crystal Palace side sitting just above the relegation places.
In: Carrick and McNair.
Out: Rojo and Smalling.
- A nervous, cautious performance from United. That was perhaps understandable after recent results and in view of the need to field a makeshift defence.
- The tempo of United’s play was too slow. Passing was poor, often directly to feet and movement ahead of the ball was poor. United did not do enough to disturb Palace’s well drilled two banks of four.
- United’s caution allowed them to retain their shape and as a consequence they gave Palace few opportunities. United needed to retain concentration against Palace’s renown quick breaks and by and large they did.
- McNair and Shaw had excellent games; Shaw was probably United’s best player.
- The United midfield three of Rooney, Carrick and Fellaini failed to convince here. They lack balance and creativity.
United Set up as a 4-1-4-1 which regularly became more of a 4-3-3 when they attacked. In fact they did most of the attacking throughout the game. Palace came to defend and set up as a 4-4-1-1 in defence with Chamakh behind Campbell and Puncheon to their right and Bolasie to their left. These four are all quick players so it was clear that the Palace game plan was to sit deep in the hope of frustrating United before hitting them on the break. For United Carrick sat in front of the back four with Blind dropping back to the left side of the central defensive pair to partner McNair. Rooney and Fellaini played in front of Carrick in central midfield.
United’s play was quite laboured. With Palace sitting deep United had most of the possession, but they did not really use it well. Their passing was slow and to feet rather than into spaces around the player receiving the ball. Players taking an extra touch suggested that United were keen to avoid losing possession and this over-caution was also manifest in poor movement ahead of the ball.
Palace remained disciplined throughout the first half and with United seemingly unwilling to change gear they struggled to find space in the attacking third. As in previous games Di Maria tended to be more fluid in his positioning often coming narrow whilst on the right Januzaj tended to stay close to the touchline and went on several promising runs but he became isolated and his play predictable. More troubling is that in this game he looked off the pace and was clearly not on the same wavelength as those around him.
Carrick stayed deep allowing the full-backs to push forward. Shaw often took the opportunity to do this as Di Maria came inside, Valencia playing behind Januzaj rarely ran beyond his winger. Shaw had an excellent game. He was probably United’s best player and got the balance between his defensive duties and taking opportunities to push forward in support of the attack right and in the first half his 60 yard run from the back created United’s best scoring opportunity; his shot was saved. He is beginning to look like he will become a fixture in United’s team for many years to come, but he has to improve his delivery; this pass completion rate was below the team average and both his crosses failed.
In midfield Fellaini tended to play higher than Rooney from where he had greater opportunity to push forward to support van Persie’s forward play. Rooney was staying deeper to cover Fellaini, but this did not make the most of Rooney’s attacking instincts, although in this game with Palace sitting back he was not as deep as he had been in the game at City.
The midfield as a whole failed to provide a creative spark. Carrick looked a little rusty which is to be expected, but generally did okay. Much of the passing was slow and square and failed to test the Crystal Palace defence. United simply did not do enough to disturb their disciplined defensive shape.
United’s caution was exemplified by one situation which repeated itself a number of times. On occasions when United started from a deep position the two highest Palace players would split wide to cover the wide channels. This left a huge swath of space in front of the central defence which they could have moved into unchallenged with the ball as United looked to move out. Initially they declined this opportunity instead passing the ball forward through this space to players higher up the pitch. Forward movement by the central defenders into this space with the ball would have forced Crystal Palace to move towards the advancing player so creating space elsewhere on the pitch. Eventually the central defenders began to do this, most notably Blind but it took quite a while for this to happen such was United’s initial caution. It was as if United were overly worried about getting caught on the break by Palace’s forward pace. This very nearly happened in fact when a mix up between Blind and McNair allowed Campbell to attempt a chip over de Gea, fortunately it also cleared the bar.
Half time 0-0.
Nothing significant changed after half time. Perhaps van Gaal was please with the first half and sent United out to provide more of the same in the hope that United’s dominance of possession would see Crystal Palace tire. They did tire and they were perhaps not as quick to cover and close down after the break. This gave United a couple of opportunities to get shots away from the edge of the box or more time to deliver crosses. None of this resulted in a goal however so on 64 minutes van Gaal removed Januzaj and introduced Mata. In terms of the overall team shape this didn’t change a lot although Mata played in a narrow position whereas Januzaj had stayed wide.
Two minutes later Boom! Mata made good use of one of those “edge of the box shooting opportunities” presented by Crystal Palace’s tiring legs. His shot may have taken a very slight deflection and the keeper got a hand to it, but it accuracy proved decisive.
Almost immediately, (on 69 minutes), van Gaal removed di Maria and introduced Wilson, who played narrow on the left. Carrick also now switched positions with Blind. It’s not clear why Carrick and Blind were swapped but Blind did seem to give United more control at the base of the midfield. Perhaps van Gaal anticipated a late onslaught from Palace and was concerned that Blind may struggle for pace against their speedy forwards as a central defender. Palace did step forward and were a little more adventurous. As a consequence the game became stretched and United might have scored again on a number of occasions. They didn’t and as the game wore on they seemed increasingly nervous. In the aftermath van Gaal made the comment that the team had successfully killed the game for the first time. Killing the game usually means retaining possession and running the clock down. This isn’t really what happened as United had retained the ball for most of the match enjoying 72% of the possession.
This wasn’t a great performance but a win is a win is a win.
There are two conventional ways to overcome a situation where a team defends with two banks of four. The first is to sit deeper yourself and circulate the ball with early accurate passes in an attempt to draw the opponent out and so create space between the lines. This approach requires the opposition to lose discipline and it helps if you have players who can play in tight areas so that you don’t have to create that much space.
The alternative approach is to attack with width. Most teams defending in depth tend to defend narrowly and surrender wide space. You must use it. The quality of crosses needs to be good and you need targets in the middle. Playing with one striker you don’t naturally have this.
United tried a little of both these approaches against Crystal Palace, but without real conviction. The first method was ineffective because United did not move the ball quickly enough and the second failed because crossing was generally poor.
United’s passing and movement was generally poor and the over caution lead to a result which was ground out rather than as a consequence of any attacking verve. That doesn’t matter at this stage in view of United’s current defensive injury/suspension list. United fielded three teenagers for most of this game, (McNair, Januzaj and Shaw), and finished with only one recognised defender on the pitch after Fletcher replaced McNair late in the game. Blind, Carrick and Fletcher all took turns in central defence in addition to McNair.
All things considered United’s defence did well but they did not have that much to do with Palace effectively “parking the bus” and waiting for opportunities to hit United on the break. United had to retain their shape and concentration something that they haven’t always done this season. They did that fairly well with Palace only really having one good chance and as a result United kept a first clean sheet in seven games.
Take the points and move on.