This article originally featured on our dedicated analysis site covering football from around the globe, totalfootballanalysis.com.
Manchester United have been struggling to live up to their reputation this season, labouring to beat relegation-threatened sides while barely managing to lay a glove on their top-six rivals. They were poor in the derby defeat to Manchester City before the international break, but with a theoretically-winnable run of fixtures coming up, Jose Mourinho confidently claimed that United would be in the top-four by the new year – a claim that you can currently get some very attractive odds on with betting sites that offer great sign-up bonuses.
The first of those was against Crystal Palace, where the Red Devils huffed and puffed and ultimately did little of note, only securing a goalless draw at home. In fact, Palace had the better chances and may even have nicked a win. A lot of this had to do with the tactical set-up of the two sides-
Jose Mourinho had a clean bill of health, so Paul Pogba returned to midfield, having missed the derby defeat. Luke Shaw was suspended, so Ashley Young switched flanks to left-back, allowing Matteo Darmian to make a rare appearance, while Romelu Lukaku started after having been dropped and then subsequently injured.
Palace went for a narrow midfield, with Max Meyer continuing his recent run in the team, while Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha formed a nominal strike pairing of sorts
Palace midfield causes United problems
Roy Hodgson’s side were set up in a 4-2-2-2 shape of sorts; Luka Milivojevic and Cheikhou Kouyate playing as the holding midfielders, while Max Meyer and James McArthur floated around behind the aforementioned strike duo. Because both Zaha and Townsend are not traditional forwards, they too dropped deep and wide on occasion, which meant that there were often four to five Palace players in central areas. They were able to easily outnumber United’s midfield trio of Pogba, Matic and Lingard, with the result that it was surprisingly easy for them to play through the centre.
Meyer, in particular, was a significant threat; Nemanja Matic never got to grips with his movement and positioning, and he was almost always in space to receive the ball.
The German was extremely intelligent with his positioning, moving into central areas but also going out wide to the left when Zaha dropped deep.
Nemanja Matic was overwhelmed at the base of United’s midfield, and while Palace’s system had a significant role in outnumbering the Serbian, it was still yet another in a string of poor performances from him. He has been unable to shield United’s defence in recent games, and while Paul Pogba gets all the attention for bad games, Matic has been playing as badly, if not worse, and the likes of Ander Herrera, Fred or Andreas Pereira surely deserve a chance in United’s midfield now.
Lingard proves he belongs in the XI
Recent weeks have seen Anthony Martial’s stock rise considerably, as the Frenchman went on a goalscoring streak and subsequently displaced Alexis Sanchez from the side. However, another one of United’s supposed young tyros, Jesse Lingard (he’s 25 years old, btw), faced a fight to get into the team. Lingard had been injured for a few weeks, and in that time, had seen Juan Mata come into the side and perform superbly against the likes of Chelsea and Newcastle. The international break was a timely reminder of his talents, as Lingard netted against both the USA, and crucially, in the crunch Nations League decider versus Croatia. On Saturday, he was one of the few United players to emerge with any credit, as his movement and positioning caused Palace problems, especially in the first half.
One of the biggest issues with Mourinho’s United side is that they are passive, waiting for things to happen rather than making them happen. This extends to their attacking play as well, where players are often motionless, leaving very few options for the man on the ball. One of the most eye-catching statistics after this weekend’s football was that United have created fewer chances this season than even 18th placed Southampton and bottom side Fulham. There is a distinct lack of creativity in the side; however, Lingard is a notable exception to this, as he is always in motion, making a run or looking to find space. While these are the absolute basic requirements from an attacking midfielder at this level, United’s approach play has been so poor thus far that such characteristics make Lingard indispensable to the side.
In truth, there is very little new information that was gained from this match. Palace deserved the point, their first at Old Trafford since 1989, and had the better chances, with Andros Townsend squandering a one-on-one which would have worsened the mood around Old Trafford. As it was, United were too slow and predictable in their attacking moves, with only Jesse Lingard showing any sort of endeavour. Nemanja Matic remains a huge millstone around the midfield, and it remains a mystery as to why Mourinho continues to pick him, while Fred languishes on the bench and Andreas Pereira does not even make the matchday squad. The hope is that the midweek fixture against Young Boys gives them a chance to show the manager what he is missing, and subsequently force their way into the side. Nevertheless, United’s problems of creativity and passivity will not be solved by one or two players; it is the manager who needs to let his side off the leash or else risk being cast aside from his moorings at Old Trafford.