CRYSTAL PALACE vs MANCHESTER UNITED
After the win against Tottenham Hotspur this was the first of four eminently winnable league fixtures that United really needed to win. The injury to Mkhitaryan meant that Jose Mourinho would have to make at least one change, but would he change approach against a struggling side likely to be more defence minded than Spurs?
In: Bailly, Blind, Mata and Rooney.
Out: Valencia, Darmian, Mkhitaryan and Martial.
- United played well in this game passing the ball well and controlling the game, particularly in the first half. It took them a long time to get their noses in front because they lacked pace up front. All their triangulated passing was therefore in front of Palace.
- That said United’s midfield looks more balanced with a three of Carrick, Herrera and Pogba. Carrick provides the direction, vision, control and security in the deep, Herrera the energy and Pogba the arrogance, strength and vision in the forward areas.
- United still lack understanding at times between the midfield and forward line. This understanding will come in time. The attack and its relationship with the rest of the team is also better however when United have some pace in attack. Then United have the option of an early ball in behind a defence and a more potent breakaway threat. Without that the play can seem a little predictable.
- Ibrahimovic is the man. He lacks pace, hence the need for others around him to provide that, but his strength, his physical presence, his skill, coolness and game nous are all potent weapons.
- Phil Jones had another quietly efficient display. He has developed an interesting partnership with Rojo which doesn’t make Bailly’s recent injury travails or his impending absence at the African Nation’s Cup seem quite so significant.
Jose Mourinho kept the same spine to his side from the previous fixture against Spurs but changed the fullback and the wide attacking players. Mkhitaryan was of course an enforced change due to injury. He was replaced by Mata whilst on the opposite side Martial was replaced by Rooney. The danger in this was that it might see United lacking in pace in attacking areas. United retained the 4-3-3 shape seen against Tottenham with Pogba and Herrera usually ahead of Carrick in the midfield. Crystal Palace seemed to mirror United’s shape for much of the game meaning that both sides had an extra man at the back and equal numbers in the middle of the pitch.
United’s shape and Pogba who had a excellent game
United started the game passing the ball well at a good tempo. They took control of the game from the start and retained possession for long periods in the early stages. As a consequence Palace dropped back and only put pressure on the ball as United crossed the halfway line. Much of the first half conformed to this pattern with only a few significant points to pick out.
Firstly with a three man midfield of Carrick Pogba and Herrera United’s midfield now looks very balanced, perhaps as balanced as it has done for several years. Carrick screens the defence, controls space and team shape and has an ability to thwart danger when United loose the ball by blocking the opponents passing angles. This gives Herrera and Pogba greater freedom. Pogba tends to stay slightly higher to the left whilst Herrera will shuttle up and down the pitch. When United don’t have the ball Herrera is the player encouraging those ahead of him to press safe in the knowledge that as he moves to close down on the ball Carrick will adjust to close down any space behind him. The other advantage of this three is that Carrick in the deep passes forward early and that can benefit both Pogba and Ibrahimovic.
Pogba passing left, Herrera passing right
The second point to make specifically about this performance is that with Mata and Rooney coming inside and Ibrahimovic dropping deep United had plenty of players in the middle of the pitch. This helped United control possession and this was good possession but it was mostly in front of Palace. There was no one offering a run behind the Palace defence and this was a critical reason why it took United so long to score. United dominated possession in the opening twenty minutes but had few shots on goal. We would point to that lack of pace in attack.
Nevertheless we say good possession because under Mourinho with the improved midfield balance much of United’s passing is triangulated between defence and midfield rather than flat and side to side with the midfield dropping into the defensive line as was often the case under Van Gaal. This is good as it asks questions. The point is that United aren’t yet doing this quite well enough between midfield and attack where space is more at a premium to make enough of an impact to open teams up. This will come.
Which brings us to the third point to make; whilst United’s general team understanding is improving it is not quite there yet. This meant that in the final third where space is at a premium the lack of the almost instinctive play needed still results in misplaced passes and the odd heavy touch. This was evident on 29 minutes when after good approach play Rooney’s heavy touch in the box saw the ball just run too far in front of Ibrahimovic denying him a good goal scoring chance. After this incident United’s play became a little sloppy and Palace had their best spell of the half for five minutes or so. Again this was down to misplaced passes and a lack of understanding.
Normal order was restored within minutes with Pogba playing a delightful chip over the Palace defence for Rooney as United pushed the home side back to edge of their penalty area. Rooney hit a first time shot on the turn but didn’t get quite enough power on it to beat Hennesey in the Palace goal. It looked like it would end as a frustrating half for United, fully in control but not having done quite enough to hurt Crystal Palace.
That all changed in the last minute of the first period. United had a free kick on the left hand side in the Palace half. Mata delivered a diagonal ball into the box which was chested on by Ibrahimovic, (some might say with a little help from his arm). This fell into the feet of Pogba inexplicably unmarked in the six yard box, (some might say offside). Boom! 1-0 on the stroke of half time.
Palace made a change at half time bringing on Ledley for Flamini, a straight swap in midfield. This changed things a little as Palace were now a little more assertive. Ledley had an early shot from range which signalled their intent but the real change was that Place were now more aggressive in the centre of the pitch. Where in the first half they had often been passive allowing United to pass around in deep areas now they closed down and challenged looking to get a foot in. United still had the larger share of possession but it was a more even contest and United had suddenly lost their passing rhythm.
United made their first change on 50 minutes. This wasn’t tactical but as a consequence of injury. Darmian replaced Bailly at right back. Bailly had taken a couple of knocks in the first half, but had struggled on. Now he went down unchallenged and could not continue. The swap was like for like.
United’s play continued to be a little sloppy and Ledley’s energy in midfield ensured that Palace enjoyed a greater share of possession now. They pushed United back, or did they deliberately drop deeper. Whichever it was United paid the price conceding an equalizing goal of 65minutes. This goal was like something from another world and was perhaps the piece of play of the whole game. Palace moved the ball quickly; first time almost instinctive passing, a clever back heel on the edge of the box and McArthur was in one-on-one on De Gea. He finished assuredly.
The goal seemed to galvanise United with Rooney producing a speculative shot from range almost straight after the restart. There then followed a period of play where United created several chances. United had a penalty shout turned down and then what looked like a good goal ruled out for offside. The difference here was that United were now making a greater effort to force the issue. So they were playing the ball forward earlier and seemed prepared to throw the ball into the box. In the first half they had seemed less inclined to do this, preferring to build up play in a more cautious manner, The equalizer seemed to have generated a greater sense of urgency.
Mourinho now made his first change introducing Lingard in place of Mata in the 70th minute. Notionally this was a right sided attacker for a right sided attacker, but in actual fact Lingard played right across the line, being more likely to pop up in the centre as on the right. His movement and running around Ibrahimovic created a target for United’s earlier forward passing and this in turn pushed Palace back. Lingard’s movement inside saw Darmian push up on the right in the space so created.
Then on 79 minutes Rashford was introduced for Rooney. Rashford tended to play to the left which meant that United now had the potential of pace on either side of Ibrahimovic. Palace struggled with this and were forced to concede a number of fouls as a consequence. United continued to move the ball quickly but it looked like they were not going to make the breakthrough. Fortunately they scored again in the 88th minute.
The ball was passed into Pogba in the inside left channel. He had his back to goal but rolled the defender and threaded a beautifully weighted ball into the half space on the left for Ibrahimovic to run onto. He had a quick look at the goalkeepers position before the ball arrived and then chipped the ball across goal without looking, over the advancing Hennessey and into the far corner of the net. Boom! 2-1.
Game over with a last gasp winner. The spirit of Sir Alex lives on.
Another win for United; a second in succession in the league for United for the first time since August. United were the better team here and controlled this game but for the first twenty minutes of the second half.
In terms of team development we are seeing good things here. The central defence, whilst not really tested to any significant degree looked fairly solid. The midfield looks more balanced than for years. Areas requiring work are the relationship between midfield and attack and the way the attack itself functions. Firstly United aren’t able to play in the final third with the level of understanding which they can play in deeper midfield areas. Misplaced passes and heavy touches abound. This means United have little problem controlling a game like this but are not as effective with a goal threat. The absence of Mkhitarayan is a factor but so is the second factor, a general lack of pace from others. Ibrahimovic is a wonderful attacking focus but he lacks pace. That means that in a 4-3-3 United need the wider attackers to provide that pace. Mata and Rooney are not necessarily the right players to do this.
This all meant that United looked more potent as an attacking force after the pace and movement of Lingard and Rashford had been introduced. The midfield has balance but the attack needs it too.