MANCHESTER UNITED vs CRYSTAL PALACE
FA Challenge Cup Final Tie. 
Wembley Stadium, London. 21.05.2016

Having just missed out on qualification for the Champions League United travelled to London for a re-run of the 1990 FA Cup final against Crystal Palace looking to salvage something form the season. Then as now the team was undergoing a period of rebuilding and looking for a milestone achievement to from which they could then advance. Then as now United had enjoyed a mixed but generally disappointing season on the back of significant investment in the team with the manager coming in for significant criticism from media and fans.

PERSONNEL

In: Fellaini.
Out: Lingard.

KEY POINTS

  • For 75 minutes this was a typical United display. United controlled possession but didn’t do that much to hurt Palace. Much of the passing was slow and side to side.
  • Palace’s pace troubled United throughout the match. Pardew got his tactics right. Sit deep in a compact shape before looking to hit United quickly in transition. Several times United were stretched and conceded fouls and booking. Smalling was eventually sent off but it could have been any number of other United players.
  • Goals change games and things opened up after Palace scored. United certainly showed more urgency sacrificing some control. They became more cautious again after the equaliser but then came to life again after the sending off.
  • Rooney had a good game, he was easily United’s man of the match, showing great energy in midfield, the fulcrum of the team here, always showing for the ball, always looking to switch play. He needs to mix it up and learn how to pick out forwards in central areas more and pass the ball forward more quickly, but he did more than a subdued Michael Carrick on the day.
  • Honourable mentions should go to Valencia, (contrast his assured display dealing with Bolasie to Rojo’s problems with Zaha), and Martial who at times looked a real handful. Martial’s impact diminished after the first half when Palace adjusted and thereafter crowded him, never allowing him to turn. He has been a big plus point of the season however.

FIRST HALF

In recent weeks Van Gaal has alternated between a 4-3-3 Shape with one defensive midfield player and a 4-4-2 with two. Here we got a bit of both. After suspension Fellaini returned to the side. Of all the central midfield three he was usually the furthest forward with Rooney at times joining him and at times sitting deeper.

The pattern of the game in the early stages in fact persisted throughout most of normal time. Palace sat deep in two banks of four and five and looked to pounce on any loose pass to break quickly through their wide players Zaha and Bolasie. United’s passing was either slow or too patient depending on your perspective, but actually both.

starting 11   Manchester United v Crystal Palace - The Emirates FA Cup Final

United’s starting shape and the excellent Wayne Rooney

A number of features are worth picking out. Firstly as often this year United struggled to make much impression on Palace. Yes they occasionally found some space but they didn’t trouble Hennessey for long periods. Secondly there were plenty of loose passes. This set up the pattern, United had possession and long period of control, with those periods punctuated by quick Palace breaks typically via Zaha and Bolasie which resulted in the better chances.

United really struggled with Palace’s pace on the break. Fortunately Palace were unable to exploit these opportunities because whilst their players are good enough to execute this tactical plan in general they don’t have enough quality to deliver an end product. The warning signs were there however and United conceded lots of fouls in these defensive transitions and suffered a few booking, even if Palace liberal use of grappling techniques was often a big part of their dispossessing United players.

Going forward United’s play was too slow to disorientate Palace with their better moments coming when Rooney dropped deep and switched play quickly towards Martial or Rojo. Unfortunately whilst Martial threatened he often ran into trouble as he ran inside. Rojo got forward well, but his delivery was poor. He particularly struggled in defence against Zaha.

The other most notable feature of the first half was United’s poor use of Fellaini. He needed to stay high to provide an opportunity for United to pass high quickly. He is at his best as a nuisance on the edge of the opposition box. Instead he too often dropped deep to involve himself in the play as United were so slow to move the ball forward and so he was ineffectual.

Half time 0-0.

SECOND HALF

The change at the start pf the second half was fairly minor. United still enjoyed most of the possession but Palace were now more inclined to engage United. They didn’t sit quite as deep and now made a number of crunching challenges. Some of these were reckless including the first of their type, Dann on Rashford in the 46th minute. This was probably a tactic under instruction from Pardew as Palace had sat a little too deep at times in the first half.

The effect of this was that United created better, more clear cut chances in the opening 15 minutes of the half. Palace occasionally looked a little stretched, especially on the right where Valencia pushed forward on Souare. Rooney fed him whenever he could. This was only a marginal difference on the first half but it could have been significant. In the 52nd minute Valencia threaded a ball inside towards Rashford who subtly flicked it on for Fellaini. His early shot hit the angle of post and bar. Then on 60 minutes Martial met a Valencia cross and his firm header hit the post. All from the right.

Horrible tackle on Rojo

Horrible tackle on Rojo

At around this point the pace of the game dropped and spaces began to open up. Both sides were clearly now tired and in the 61st minute a very tired tackle by Delaney injured Rojo. This was actually another example of the crunching tackles we were seeing from Palace; an awful challenge it could easily have been a straight red. Rojo never recovered abd was replaced by Darmian on 65 minutes. Positionally this was a straight swap although Darmian was less inclined to push forward behind Martial in the remainder of the contest.

2nd half one  533192660

United in the middle of the second half and Valencia who was solid in defence and energetic in attack

A couple of minutes later another bad foul led to Cabaye accidentally standing on Rashford as the United forward fell. Another injury, another forced substitution with Young replacing Rashford after 68 minutes. Young initially played as the centre forward in place of Rashford.

Palace will no doubt consider Cabaye’s performance to have been disappointing in this final and he was replaced on 72 minutes by Jason Puncheon. In the second half United had dominated possession and the Palace breakaways which had punctuated the first half were conspicuous by their absence. They did however managed to get forward a couple of times as United seemed to tire and some of their play became sloppy towards the middle of the half. From one example of this they won a corner.

This was taken by Puncheon and headed clear by Fellaini. It was then returned diagionaly to puncheon who had run into the box on the left from his position taking the corner. He controlled the ball and then hit it staright away beating De Gea for power. Suddenly it was 0-1 and United were looking at a defeat. 78 minutes on the clock.

Fortunately Rooney had other ideas. He had an excellent game throughout. He worked hard and recycled the ball around the pitch. The runners off the ball weren’t always there for him but he continued to work hard and made the game for United. Now he decided to make his own running and moved from left to right carrying the ball. Perhaps he sensed this was where Palace’s weakness was having seen Valencia’s increasing influence. He evaded several tired challenges before looping a delightful cross to the far post. This was a great piece of skill because his body shape and balance were all wrong to do this. It was met by Fellaini who chested it, deliberate or not, who cares, into the path of Mata Boom! Mata shot low and the ball squirmed majestically into the net. 81 minutes 1-1. Palace’s lead had lasted just 3 minutes.

Mata - Boom! With a trademark chest down by Fellaini (in the background) to set up the shot

Mata – Boom! With a trademark chest down by Fellaini (in the background) to set up the shot

Perhaps United could have gone for the kill at this point as Palace looked deflated, but instead they reverted cautious type. Palace replaced Wickham with Gayle on 86 minutes, a straight swap and United replaced Mata with Lingard in injury time as the extra half hour loomed.

2nd half two

EXTRA TIME

At the start of the extra half hour Palace made a further change replacing the injured Dann with Mariappa. Both sides had now made all their substitutions.

Within about 5 minutes of the start of the extra half hour Van Gaal made a first positional change moving Young out wide to the left and putting Martial through the middle. Young now tended to mix up his runs, sometimes inside, sometimes outside for a cross. This was less predictable than Martial’s play who had generally faded from the game after his first half display. Palace had made sure they always got two men around him whenever he had got the ball, one tight behind him, one a couple of yards off to pick up the pieces from a tackle. A lot of those tackles were unpunished fouls.

start of extra time

The general pattern of play had not changed in extra time but then came a game changing incident in the 105th minute when Smalling was sent off after grappling with Bolasie as the Palace man looked to break.  We can’t really complain about this as Smalling rugby tackled the Palace man but that was only after he had come out of a tussle the better. In that initial tussle Bolasie was pulling Smalling shirt. Fortunatley after the sending off United managed to make it to the extra time break without serious set back and this gave them an opportunity to reorganise.

Broadly United went to a 4-3-1-1 shape with Lingard behind Martial looking to get forward to support him when he could. In defence Darmian moved to right side centre-back with Young moving to left back.

10 men  136348

United down to ten men with Young moving to fullback. Van Gaal’s decision to retain a diamond allowed United to retain possession and so not get overrun. His final tactical gift to United; this won the cup.

United actually looked the better side for this, maybe out of defiance, maybe as a consequence of the obvious need to now make the most of any opportunities. That presented themselves. Perhaps Palace were also tired, perhaps they couldn’t change from their counterattacking mind set and were found out as a one trick pony. Carrick had a good chance to score but his glancing header went just wide.

Then came the most beautiful moment.

BOOM!

BOOM!

Again Valencia provided the delivery towards Martial, as he pulled his foot back it was nudged away by a Palace defender. It fell to Lingard slightly awkwardly but he met this without hesitation to strike a thunderous volley into the net. The keeper had no chance. Boom! “1 man down 2-1 up” to paraphrase a song from the eighties, “Lingard’s goal has won the cup”? 110 minutes played. Palace looked desperate and United held on.

CONCLUSION

Manchester United – FA Challenge Cup Winners 2016. That has a nice ring to it doesn’t it?

United won because they showed some grit and determination and stuck to their task even after the sending off. We haven’t always been able to say that this season about this team. This was a tight game which tells a tale because Palace are a very average side. United should be blowing teams of this standard away. They didn’t because again for long periods their football was laboured, slow and cautious.

Boom!

Boom!

Palaces strength is their pace and on several occasions they almost caught United. It was no surprise when a United player was sent off for a foul on a braking Palace player, Bolasie, but it was Zaha whose pace was a real handful throughout the whole match. Palaces problem, like Zaha’s is the quality of their end product. It’s ironic that you would usually say that about Lingard, United’s match winner.