After a disappointing home performance against Villa, potentially the worst team to have ever graced the Premier League, Manchester United looked forward to facing Crystal Palace. Alan Pardew’s men had a surprising draw against the Gunners at the weekend having successfully repelled their lacklustre attacks and hitting them on the break with counter attacks, Yannick Bolasie being particularly threatening . This did not look great for the United faithful, who watched their team struggle to break down Aston Villa… yes Villa. Not many managers have made the doomed Claret and Blues look good, but Louis Van Gaal can add that to his impressive list of things not to include on your CV. Optimism has been at its lowest for some time, which was summed up by a text I received from Manchester United the night before: “United v Crystal Palace – get behind the team as they battle for a top 4 finish at OT tomorrow. Last chance to buy tickets blah blah blah”. It’s not often I get those kind of rousing texts the night before a Premier League game, showing a clear lack of tickets sold for the match.
When the team news came out an hour before kick-off a renewed sense of optimism could be seen on social media; United’s line up was far more attacking than most supporters expected. Louis Van Gaal has had a tendency to pick two holding midfielders against teams when one would do the job quite sufficiently. He has also failed to learn that all of the Red Devils’ best performances in the last two season have come when the formation has taken the shape of a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-3-3 (e.g: against Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City last season as well as Arsenal and West Ham this season). Van Gaal must have noticed that the immobile midfield paring of Fellaini and Carrick against Villa was not fluid enough, and made an apology to the fans after the game for the unconvincing performance. To the fans’ confidence, Van Gaal reverted back to the 4-1-4-1 which had been so successful and exciting against West Ham. The back four lined up with the usual Blind-Smalling partnership in the centre whilst Valencia and Darmian took up fullback roles. Schneiderlin stood as the shield in front of the defence while Martial, Rooney, Mata and Lingard assisted Rashford at the attacking end of the pitch. With Rooney taking up a box-to-box role, making runs from deep in midfield and spreading the play effectively, and Mata orchestrating attacks, the other front three combined to show one of the brightest attacking performances from United this season, interchanging and running the Palace defence ragged.
David De Gea had one of his quietest nights at Old Trafford, not having to make a single save, and was only called upon to make one tackle and claim one cross. His easy pay-check was down to three factors. Firstly, Schneiderlin had his most effective game in a United shirt: shielding the defence, intercepting play and closing down Palace’s tricky forwards (Zaha and Sako) with incredible success. Secondly, Daley Blind, in particular, and Chris Smalling had very solid games at the heart of United’s defence, the former making five tackles and latter winning three aerials. The duo partnered with the ever-running fullbacks of Valencia and Darmian. Thirdly, Palace looked very much like a team looking toward their FA Cup fixture on Sunday; resting Bolasie and Dann (their two best players this season according to my Eagles flatmate) and just generally not looking very adventurous. The most threatening attacks came from the ex-United man Zaha, looking to prove a point to his former club. Unfortunately, the only point he proved was that United were right to have let him go. All-in-all, Manchester United kept another clean sheet, their 17th in 34 PL games this season.
In an attacking capacity, United were the most exciting they have been for a long time. Rooney played a box-to-box midfield role, but, because of Palace’s unwillingness to really test United, he was free to orchestrate attacks from deep or run directly at the Eagle’s defence before laying it off, both of which he did very efficiently. Mata had much more freedom than Rooney in his position, often popping up on the left and the right to interchange passes with the winger/fullback on each side, creating triangles of play which isolated Palace defenders with quick passes. The youthful forward three had very impressive games. Lingard was as industrious as ever, running off the ball to create space, interchanging clever passes with Mata and Valencia on a consistent basis and pressing the Palace defence when they were in possession, harrying them off the ball. While he hasn’t got the headline-grabbing dribbling or clinical finishing of Martial or Rashford, it is in no doubt that Lingard is a very useful player to this team. Rashford did what he does best for the entirety of the match, running into the channels to create space for his team mates and taking the opposition on directly when given the chance. He showed incredible strength late on in the second half when he chased a ball, which most strikers would have given up on, and shoved Mariappa (no weakling) off the ball to unselfishly lay it on a plate for Lingard, who couldn’t beat the spectacular Speroni. Martial played an inside-left role, a position which he is starting to make his strongest, and gave Kelly a torrid time; constantly cutting inside and letting rip some venomous shots, and was unlucky not to score.
While the attacking players were tearing up the Eagle’s defence, the man who actually had the most attacking impact was Matteo Darmian. The Italian fullback fired in a brilliant cross which forced Delaney into scoring an own goal and smashed in a scorching volley from a corner, both with his weaker left foot and whilst playing on the left side of defence (his weaker fullback side). No one would have predicted it and I was personally disappointed to see Darmian on the team-sheet ahead of Tim Fosu-Mensah, but that just shows why I am not the Manchester United manager.