MANCHESTER UNITED vs CRYSTAL PALACE
Wembley Stadium, London. 21.05.2016

This has been a disappointing season for most United fans. We had all hoped that a rich vein of form in the Spring last year, which (despite a tailing off at the end of the 2014-15) secured Champions League football, was a glimpse of the future and United would push forward with a challenge for the Premier League this year.  It hasn’t happened and our football this season can be best described as laboured.  Despite a reasonable start to the league campaign (we stood top of the league in early November) a disastrous late November and December meant that by the turn of the year our chances of league success were a long shot.

Added to this, our football has lacked conviction with a lack of goals and excitement resulting in many United fans losing faith in the manager’s “philosophy. “ Of course, losing the fans makes everything harder, and though United have suffered significant injuries for a second year running, supporters are simply in no mood for excuses.

Despite all this United have only narrowly missed out on qualification for the Champions League and have a chance of a trophy, having reached the final of the FA Cup. Here we meet Crystal Palace who themselves have had a difficult up and down season. There are obvious parallels to a season 26 years ago when United met Palace at Wembley in the FA Cup final.  Palace was then a newly promoted side who had struggled (losing one match 0-9 at Anfield) and United had similarly then as now, experienced a disappointing season. This in spite of significant financial investment in the side and a period during the autumn when they could not buy a win. Both teams had managed an FA Cup run which seemed out of context from their week to week progress through the season.  So here we go again.

Crystal Palace

Alan Pardew was a Crystal Palace player the last time we met in the final of the FA Cup. He is an interesting manager. At Newcastle United he had a difficult relationship with the fans but managing Newcastle is a very difficult task which seems even harder given the owner’s approach to running a football club. Generally, though, he is a sound competent manager who you imagine might achieve some real success at a club given some background stability. If he is going to get that anywhere he will get it at Palace where, given his history as a player, there is naturally a higher degree of faith in him.

Palace manager Alan Pardew

Palace manager Alan Pardew

He joined Palace as manager in January 2015. At that point Palace were languishing in the relegation zone but by the end of the season he had reorganised his side so well that they finished 10th, their highest ever Premier League finish. He hasn’t yet had long enough to develop the team to the point where they can push on towards a consistency but it is to the Palace hierarchy’s credit that he has retained their backing even when struggling in the middle of the season. In the same way as it does for United, for Palace the FA Cup represents an opportunity to salvage something from a difficult campaign, but also to establish a base camp of success as a potential springboard for the future. Crystal Palace should not be under-estimated.

This year they started the season well, and despite losing six of their first thirteen games they sat sixth in the division on Boxing Day. From that point, however, they began a decline. From Christmas onwards they failed to win a league game until the 9th of April and they have only won two league games in 2016. For a while it looked as if they might be dragged into a relegation battle but their position of Boxing Day has meant they had a long way to fall down and that cushion has ensured that they have avoided any real danger of the drop.

Their FA Cup run hasn’t been easy with five of the six games played against Premier League opposition, but they have progressed each time without the need for a replay. The stand out result in their run has been the 1-0 win against an in-form Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.

Tactical Approach

Pardew’s Palace is essentially a counter-attacking side. In some ways they are a bit of a poor man’s Leicester although there are differences. Some of those differences are subtle but at least one is significant.

In a nutshell they are disciplined and compact in defence and look to hit teams on the break. But they don’t have a Jamie Vardy and this lack of a prolific, pacey goal-scorer makes them far less effective than Leicester. Leicester are a technically better group of players, which allows them to play a more dynamic and longer game, pushing the ball forward more quickly and playing riskier passes. Palace will try to do this but often give the ball away: they have pace in wider areas but lack the higher technical ability to exploit that pace in the same way as Leicester. Their breakaways can be a threat, however, with Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha, Jason Puncheon and Bakary Sako all suited to this strategy. They are all quick powerful players who can carry the ball well.

palace becomes a 4-3-3      palace become 4-4-2

Crystal Palace basic team shape, 4-2-3-1, becoming 4-3-3 or 4-4-2

Pardew usually employs a 4-2-3-1 shape, although this can resemble a 4-3-3 in certain phases of the game. More recently he has used a 4-4-2 strategy; this may be because of recent injuries or the nature of the opponents faced and their approach. The key to Palace’s approach is that even when in their defensive shape they usually allow a couple of forward runners (usually Bolasie and Zaha) a free role. This requires other players to drop in, so often the central player in the three (the number 10) will drop deeper to supplement the two deep holding midfield players. This gives the midfield three greater scope to shuttle across and cover their defence on a broader front, effectively closing down space to wide runners.  At the same time this can leave them vulnerable to quick switches of play, something United attempted recently at Old Trafford with some success. If the central forward stays high they then look like a 4-3-3, if he drops deep they look like a 4-4-2.

The key to this approach is Yohan Cabaye. Cabaye is probably Palace’s most technically gifted player and played for Pardew at Newcastle. After a spell warming the bench at Paris St-Germain he returned to England. He has been employed by Pardew as one of the two deep holding midfield players. Palace relies on him to deliver the ball forward quickly when they win the ball to the free forward runners. If he get this right they are far more effective. If he gets it wrong Palace struggle to make an impression on the game. If they can get the ball forward and they are able to hold it for long enough for Cabaye to move higher, once he reaches those higher areas he has an opportunity to use his excellent passing range to good effect.

Yohan Cabaye

Yohan Cabaye

Palaces’s pacey high midfield players are their strength and they often interchange. Their average position can then seem quite narrow, but this is deceptive, as they usually attack with width and regularly deliver more than 20 crosses per game. Their weakness though is their central strikers. Palace usually plays with one central striker relying on runners to supplement their attacking threat in the final third. This can mean that crosses come in without any weight of attacking numbers in the box. The Palace striker is either Connor Wickham, Emanual Adebayor or Dwight Gayle. Occasionally two of these three will play, often after a substitution as a response to an in-match situation.

United vs Palace this season

United first faced Palace on the 31st October at Selhurst Park. This match preceded United’s injury crisis and poor form in late November and December but in some ways was a harbinger of things to come: the game ended in a 0-0 stalemate, despite United enjoying 55.5% of possession. Despite this they recorded 10 shots on target to United’s 5. The most noticeable features of this game, however, are how narrow Palace’s team shape became with a concentration of players around the centre circle and the contrast in passing patterns.

Crystal Palace's narrow team shape against United at Selhurt Park

Crystal Palace’s narrow team shape against United at Selhurt Park

Palace’s passing pattern clearly shows how frequently Palace pass diagonally towards their forward runners in the half-spaces and the preponderance of red shows how often this tactic was unsuccessful in this game. In contrast, United’s passing pattern is far greener with many more square passes.

Passing patterns from the Palace vs United game at Selhurt Park. Note the significant number of long "red" forward passes on the Crystal Palace pattern

Passing patterns from the Palace vs United game at Selhurt Park. Note the significant number of long “red” forward passes on the Crystal Palace pattern

United’s average team shape in this game shows the team spread on a significantly wider front than Palace’s. Herrera played from the start in this game and with Mata coming narrow from the right, almost certainly restricted the ability of Cabaye and his partner McArthur in their attempts to release the Palace runners. This allowed Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Blind and Smalling to step up and defend higher, irrespective of Palace’s pace in attack. Van Gaal is seen by many fans as a defensive coach, but this was brave; he was effectively relying on Herrera and others to cut off the supply quickly in high areas whenever Palace won the ball in transition.

United team shape vs Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park

United team shape vs Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park

United’s second game against Palace came just a few weeks ago on 20th April 2016. By this point both sides had qualified for the FA Cup Final, something which is always likely to have some influence on a game of this type. But United were pushing for a Champions League place making all three points imperative.

In this game United adopted a 4-3-3 shape with Schneiderlin as the holding midfield player and Rooney and Mata as the advanced midfield players. Mata and Lingard regularly switched positions but the important point to note is that United’s two forward midfield players were able to quickly pick up Cabaye and McArthur when Palace won the ball cutting off any supply to Palace’s forwards.

United scored very early in this game via an own goal and then scored again in the second half from a corner where the ball broke to Darmian. Palace was poor but there are a couple of points to note. Firstly, Palace attacked and defended with width. If you look at their action areas you will note the action in the wide areas and in the half spaces with very little through the centre of the pitch. This is partly as a response to the form of Lingard and Martial (supported by others in the wide areas) but may also have been a direct response to the game in October where they were really far too narrow.

Crystal palace action areas at Old Trafford. With the exception of action in their own penalty area they attacked and defended with width and in the half spaces

Crystal palace action areas at Old Trafford. With the exception of action in their own penalty area they attacked and defended with width and in the half spaces

The second point of note is how often Wayne Rooney looked to drop deep, pick up the ball and deliver a long diagonal switching pass to the onrushing Valencia on the opposite right flank. Again this may have been a response to the narrowness of Palace’s shape in the season’s first encounter, although Rooney had employed this tactic in the previous United game against Aston Villa.

Rooney passing in the recent game against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford

Rooney passing in the recent game against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford

What to expect

It is always difficult to call a final and we tend to avoid predictions anyway. We would expect both teams to adopt broadly their usual approach. Palace will look to defend and stay compact before then trying to hit United on the break. United will control the ball but their effectiveness will largely depend upon how quickly they move it and how co-ordinated their play is in the final third. The factor of a neutral venue is significant. As a counter-attacking side we would expect Palace to approach this game more like an away game. Van Gaal will always try to control the space and dominate the opposition.

The size of the Wembley pitch is also a factor. In theory this leaves lots of space for quick switches of play. These have been a feature of United’s play in recent weeks, but if they go wrong they will leave opportunities for Palace to counter-attack quickly. The Wembley pitch is then both an advantage and disadvantage.

Who will pick up the Palace deep midfield players? Van Gaal may choose to bring Fellaini back with this in mind. Herrera had a really poor game at West Ham and, whilst Fellaini is technically less accomplished, he sticks to the tactical script, something Van Gaal values. Palace are without Joe Ledley, lost to injury and if he hasn’t recovered from his injury in time United old boy Wilfried Zaha. Zaha, along with Bolasie, is one of Pardew’s first choice free runners. If he doesn’t recover he will probably be replaced by Sako. Ledley has featured alongside Cabaye in recent weeks. His absence suggests McArthur may play.

On Sunday Palace lost their last league game to Southampton 4-1 on the south coast. We shouldn’t read too much into that game as they didn’t have much to play for and of course had the cup final on their minds. They played in a 4-4-2 shape which resembled a 4-2-2-2 it was so narrow. Pardew also rested a several players and made a maximum number of substitutions.

 

This is a key moment for United; whatever happens over the summer a win here will secure a major milestone in the history of the club – a first trophy post-Sir Alex Ferguson, something that will make whatever comes next far easier. There has been a lot of negativity amongst some sections of United fans this season, but now is the time to all pull together and be United.