MANCHESTER UNITED vs CRYSTAL PALACE
With City dropping two points the previous evening this was an opportunity for United to close the gap to the top four. A second league game in a week; but with the FA Cup semi-final ahead would Van Gaal select a team with half an eye on the weekend fixture?
In: Darmian, Lingard and Martial.
Out: Rojo, Fellaini and Memphis.
- United played a 4-3-3 again here, with Schneiderlin as the holding midfield player and two players, Rooney and at various times Lingard or Mata further forward. United always looked comfortable defensively in this shape, but basically because Crystal Palace offered little threat.
- United’s play again lacked a good tempo and so urgency. By the middle of the second half with a 2-0 the game had the feel of a testimonial or training game.
- Lingard and Mata regularly interchanged between the right-sided attacking midfield position and the right sided attacking role, but generally to minimal effect.
- United’s play was structured until they reached the final third. They often over passed and at times it felt like they were playing to a pre-agreed pattern.
- In the final third United’s play was often disjointed.
United started this game in a 4-3-3 shape with Schneiderlin as the more defensive midfield players and Rooney and Mata ahead of him. Before the match had settled into any kind of rhythm United found themselves one goal ahead. We say found themselves because the goal was an own goal.
An unremarkable move on the United left saw a low speculative cross from Darmian slide across the box and Delaney stuck out a leg and diverted the ball past his own keeper. Boom! 1-0 after 4 minutes.
United’s first half shape, with Rooney in midfield
The hope here after the goal was that we might see an open game with Crystal Palace playing a more adventurous game than they might have done at 0-0 in an attempt to get back into the game. This didn’t happen and instead the game settled into an all too familiar pattern. United’s passing was slow and cautious. With three in central midfield this should mean there are plenty of passing options though the middle of the pitch and there was but what happened was that usually Schneiderlin passed forward towards the more advanced midfield players who simply passed it back, effectively a wall pass. This went nowhere. Lingard and Mata regularly switched positions and when they did and Mata picked up a forward pass he tended to look to turn and pass the ball further forward. This was one of the situations which lead to United’s brighter moments.
Generally it felt as if United’s game plan was too formulaic and this seemed to result in overpassing. The classic example of this was when a United player had the ball in the inside right channel. Repeatedly in this situation the player, (Lingard or Mata), would pass the ball out wide to an overlapping player, (usually Valencia). They did this even when they themselves have had more space either to run into or to cross. This meant that United regularly delayed the ball into the box and when the ball was delivered no one attacked the ball. On a couple of occasions the player in the inside right position did spontaneously attack the space and this caused problems.
The other situation which caused problems was when Rooney switched play from deep on the left to wide right into the path of the advancing Valencia. This of course led directly to the goal against Aston Villa and here over the course of the game Rooney attempted this four times. Valencia usually received the ball and returned it into the box. As previously stated no one attacked the ball.
Nothing really changed in the second half. As in the first the play was very structured and deliberate up to the final third and then a little bit disjointed in the final third. Typically United would find themselves outnumbering Crystal Palace as they attacked after a transition but fail to create a clear cut shooting opportunity. This was often as a consequence of poor movement off the ball to create the passing angle.
On 55 minutes United scored a second. From a corner the ball was headed clear to the edge of the box where Matteo Darmian controlled the ball and then volleyed from the edge of the box. Boom! 2-0.
United shape in the middle and towards the end of the second half
This was effectively game over which was no good for the game as a spectacle as Van Gaal soon began to make substitutions. On 66 minutes Memphis replaced Rashford. Martial moved to the middle and Memphis played on the left. On 72 minutes Herrera replaced Lingard and then on 78 minutes Fellaini replaced Rooney. These changes resulted in subtle changes to the team shape but the performance, which had been disappointing generally now deteriorated to the point where it felt United were just going through the motions rather than actually trying to make an impression on the opposition goal.
This was a second win in a week and a second slow disappointing but comfortable performance in a week against a poor side. The early own goal only seemed to make United seem more comfortable and play with even less urgency. The play was side to side, pass, pass, pass, and in the final quarter of the game seemingly very little attempt to threaten the opposition goal. This was low in entertainment value, there were empty seats from the start but as the game wore on fans left in their droves. This doesn’t bode well and Van Gaal’s statement after the game that we need to pass quicker and force the issue, (we should have won 5-0 according to the manager), is correct. But can he and this team change it?
A note to be made here is that this season many have blamed United’s moribund football on the use of two holding midfield players but here for the second game running United have played a single defensive midfield player and produced a second dull display. This demonstrates that the team shape is not the whole story. It is equally about your state of mind and how you use that shape.
No doubt things will be different at Wembley.