As Crystal Palace picks maximum points
The Red Devils’ positive start to the season has crashed and burned in the space of five days as penalty drama gripped once again
This is not what Manchester United fans had in mind after spanking Chelsea4-0 on matchday one in the Premier League. With every passing game, that result is looking more and more like a false dawn. There was a feeling at the time that the scoreline did not adequately reflect the contest and so it is proving.
United are a deeply flawed team; easy to read, easy to counter, easy to play against. For a well-organised team like Crystal Palace, they are an elaborate training exercise. Funnel the ball wide, see it off and go again.
Palace did not need territory, they did not need possession to get a 2-1 win away at Old Trafford. They saw very little of the ball but got their two bullets in the chamber right on the money.
Jordan Ayew in the first half and Patrick van Aanholt right at the death put paid to United’s plans on the day, even if new signing Daniel James looked to have snaffled a point with a well-taken goal late on.
Even that would not be enough for a side like United, who have spent big on restructuring their defence this summer but look as susceptible as ever. David de Gea might well have stayed for one more season at least but he needs to get his act together. No serious goalkeeper should be conceding the way he did to Van Aanholt.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, signed to settle a long-standing issue at right back, had a difficult day on that side. He was left dealing with Wilfried Zaha one on one as Palace hung in there for the last few minutes and selected the Ivorian as their only weapon on the break.
That might have been the area from which possession was ceded to United for the James goal but it’s also where Zaha constructed the counterattack from which Van Aanholt shot past De Gea after Wan-Bissaka failed to clear.
More misery too from the spot for United, with Marcus Rashford restored to first-choice penalty taking duties. He was given a chance to level up the scores, whereas on Monday it was Paul Pogba looking to put United in the lead at Wolves.
Same outcome. Rashford crashed his effort against the post in contrast to Pogba having his saved by Rui Patricio.
It was as close United came to scoring before James’ goal against a disciplined Palace side; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s new season threatened with derailment after only three matches.
For the most part, United were the team with the ball but they failed to do much useful with it. The combination involving substitute Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay for the failed penalty kick was one of the few occasions United got in behind Palace and actually put a shot in on Vicente Guaita’s goal.
Otherwise United’s attacking possession was marred by bad technique and bad decisions. Greenwood was introduced in place of Jesse Lingard very soon after the England international failed to trap a Pogba pass at the edge of the area that should have led to something more promising than the ball simply being frittered away.
He was not the only one. It was a miserable day for Rashford up until his contribution for the goal in the 89th minute. He gave up the ball time and again in decent attacking positions. There were haphazard flicks to oblivion, there were through balls delivered behind the runners on breaks, there were shots taken from 35 to 40 yards that would not in a million years come close to being successful.
He signed a new contract over the summer, worth some £200,000 per week, and Solskjaer has put 50 per cent of his striking faith in the 21-year-old, with Martial carrying the other part of the load with Romelu Lukaku sold without being replaced.
It has left United with a big problem, in that there’s a clear split between starters and substitutes. All Solskjaer’s matchwinners are generally on the field of play from the beginning, with little in reserve to increase the on-field quality from the bench.
Their attacks are predictable, with Harry Maguire seeing most of the ball during the first half and expected from there to play it into Luke Shaw on the left. It led to one or two decent moments, not least a blocked James effort in the first half, but Guaita had scarcely put palm to ball up until the last knockings of the game.
One or two flickers are not enough to create chances, let alone goals, and certainly not sufficient when goals are given up so easily at the other end.
Victor Lindelof was pummelled in the air by Jeffrey Schlupp, whose fine aerial challenge was met on the run by compatriot Ayew. His finish was composed, having taken advantage of some poor Maguire positioning to get in to score.
Not long after, Zaha sauntered in from the right wing, exchanged passes with Ayew, but saw his effort blocked when it could have been 2-0.
United were in desperation mode early in the second half, all pretence of a game plan gone out of the window. James and Greenwood took up positions on the flanks with only McTominay and Pogba being retained as genuine midfielders. They had the upper hand in terms of the tempo of the game but still chances came and went.
Martial shot over when being leaned upon by Martin Kelly and Old Trafford asked for a penalty. Earlier his pace had caused problems for Gary Cahill, who could have seen red not yellow for hauling the Frenchman down just outside the area.
But that’s not enough for United. Balls into space for strikers to run onto won’t cut it at this level, no matter how quick they are.
United need shape, pattern, a game plan, and they need to come up with it and fast. On this evidence they are more like the scuffed version of Solskjaer’s United we saw at the end of the season rather than the rejuvenated side at the outset of his reign.