Manchester United welcomed Crystal Palace to Old Trafford on Saturday, to do battle for points in the third round of the 2019/20 Premier League season.
Neither of these teams have had a perfect start to the campaign. After a very convincing win over Chelsea in the opening game, United failed to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Molineux, with a penalty won but missed by Paul Pogba causing a lot of talk. Palace, on the other hand, drew at home with Everton and lost away to the newly promoted Sheffield United, and getting anything away from Manchester never looked likely.
Diogo Dalot has joined fellow defenders Eric Bailly and Timothy Fosu-Mensah on the list of injured Manchester United players, leaving manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer without many options at the back.
The Norwegian arranged his team in a highly attacking 4-2-3-1 shape. David De Gea was in goal. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof expectedly paired up in the centre of defence, with Luke Shaw on the left and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right. Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba were the two midfiedlers in deeper roles, with Daniel James, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford further up. Anthony Martial was the attacking focal point.
Palace boss Roy Hodgson had defensive problems of his own, with centre-backs Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins both out injured. Former Chelsea man Gary Cahill was called into action for the first time since his arrival to Selhurst Park.
Vicente Guaita stood between the posts. Cahill was joined by Martin Kelly in the heart of defence. Joel Ward was on their right side, Patrick van Aanholt on the left. Luka Milivojevic anchored a very strong midfield, also consisting of Cheikhou Kouyate and James McArthur. Jordan Ayew led the attack, flanked by Wilfried Zaha and Jeffrey Schlupp.
The First Half
Manchester United played very well from the start, dominating possession, combining nicely in the opposition half and forcing Crystal Palace to defend. However, the visitors defended well, obviously not minding the situation too much, and there were no early chances. James and Wan-Bissaka looked very lively on the right, helped occasionally by Pogba or Lingard who drifted their way from the middle, but Guaita still remained unchallenged.
But a serious refereeing mistake in the 10th minute almost gave the home team the lead. Lingard committed a cynical foul from behind on Milivojevic, but referee Paul Tierney played advantage. United soon won the ball and Tierney decided not to pull the game back but allow them to continue. Rashford broke through, and only the perseverance of Martin Kelly prevented what would have been a very controversial goal.
Seven minutes later, United had a great chance as the ball came into the box from the left and caused a scramble before falling nicely for James to shoot from 10 yards, but his effort was blocked.
At the other end, Ayew worked really hard to keep the ball for as long as he could, but neither Zaha nor Schlupp offered him nearly enough support in the opposition half. It was only too easy for United defenders to crowd him out and restart their attacks. It took Palace a quarter of the game to spend a whole minute in meaningful possession, but that was about it and United pushed them back again.
In the 25th minute, Pogba won a free-kick in a great shooting position at 20 yards from the goal. Rashford had a go looking for the far top corner, but he just failed to find it.
United had their first problem in the game just before the half-hour mark when Shaw sat down, feeling his hamstring. Solskjaer was forced to react and Ashley Young was sent to warm up as fast as he could, but Shaw continued playing for a while longer.
And before the substitution was made, lightning struck as Palace lobbed the ball forwards and Lindelof unexpectedly lost the aerial duel to Schlupp, who nodded it on in behind for Ayew. The striker just managed to stay onside as Maguire inexplicably failed to step out, and Ayew was off, one-on-one with De Gea, giving the United goalkeeper no chance with a cool finish.
Shaw then came off and Young came on, and the experienced wide man immediately had a go from range, just missing the near post.
The goal, however, seemed to have given a strong boost to the Eagles and they had two more chances in quick succession, before Lingard tried to break forward and got mowed down by Milivojevic. Cahill was the next man in Tierney’s book as he took out Martial at a full run 20 yards out. It was Pogba who stepped up this time and aimed for the near top corner, but with the same result as Rashford earlier.
Palace then attacked down the right, and Zaha had some fun with Young as he sent the Manchester United defender to the writhing to the ground several times, before sending in a cross which De Gea picked from the air without problems.
The Second Half
United charged forward in search of an equalizer immediately after the break, but they still weren’t having it all their way. The Eagles still defended well, and weren’t as timid in going forward as they were at the start of the game.
United’s play was slower than before. Pogba was taking much time on the ball in the middle of the park looking to produce some defence-splitting pass, but as soon as he sent it forward, the attacking players were surrounded and nullified. Wan-Bissaka tried a few of his trademark runs down the right, but knowing him very well, his former teammates knew how to deal with him. In the 54th minute, however, Wan-Bissaka whipped in a good cross towards Young on the far post, but Young’s volley bounced off the ground and went high over the bar.
A minute later, Martial made the most of a nice pass into his feet on the edge of the box as he turned around Kelly who was pulling him by the shoulders, and his shot from a difficult position went over the bar. He and his teammates demanded a foul to be given, but Tierney was having none of it. It was a moment full of tension and the referee could have produced several cards had he wanted to, but he didn’t.
But United players seemed more nervous from that point on, very determined and aggressive, but not focused enough. Pogba, McTominay and Young were especially lucky to avoid getting booked for sparking confrontation a few times. Rashford, Martial and James, on the other hand, led the way in miscontrolling the ball, mistiming runs and/or misplacing passes.
But in the 69th minute, McTominay combined well with Mason Greenwood (who replaced Lingard earlier) and Martial as he charged into the box, and got tripped by Milivojevic. Tierney had no doubts whatsoever about blowing his whistle and pointing to the spot, but Rashford only managed to hit the post.
United kept going, but apart from James earning a yellow card for simulation, they had very little to show for it.
To add a bit of zest to his team, Hodgson introduced Christian Benteke for Ayew with 15 minutes to go. Though a striker by trade, the Belgian seemed to have as much responsibility in defence as in attack as the home team kept winning set-pieces and creating opportunities to send crosses into the box, where Benteke’s strength and aerial prowess meant a lot. Five minutes later, Schlupp made way for Andros Townsend.
There was a lot of excitement within 60 seconds of that substitution. Van Aanholt first broke down the left but failed to employ Zaha in the crucial moment, and then United broke back through Rashford who burst into the box and went down, screaming for another penalty. This time, however, there wasn’t one to come.
The last seven minutes saw James McCarthy play instead of Kouyate for Palace, and then Solskjaer sent on Juan Mata to replace McTominay. However, nothing seemed to be working for the players in red shirts, while those in white (Palace) took every opportunity to waste time. Goalkeeper Guaita earned a booking for it in the 87th minute.
But two minutes later, it finally all clicked into place for United. Pogba corrected his mistake in the middle of the park and retrieved the ball, and then Rashoford engaged Martial who set James up. The young winger stepped inside from the left and sent the ball straight into the far top corner, past the helpless Guaita and into the net.
Quite expectedly, United now charged forward more than ever. Five minutes were added on top of the 90, and there was still time for another goal, but unfortunately for them, it was Crystal Palace who scored it, and once again completely against the run of play.
Pogba lost the ball again in the middle and it found its way to Benteke, who switched sides and suddenly Zaha was running into the box with it. The winger was successfully stopped, but he had backup in the form of van Aanholt who picked it up and blasted past De Gea.
The Premier League has seen plenty of games like this, that’s what it’s famous for, that’s why it’s considered one of the toughest in the world. United’s midfield domination was rendered completely meaningless due to the lack of concentration at both ends. They are still hoping that in the man who had played under Sir Alex Ferguson they have finally found the right successor for the legendary Scotsman, but to make that hope true, Solskjaer will have to keep working hard and find new ways to bring success to Old Trafford.
Palace, on the other hand, cannot be unhappy about anything about this game. They fought hard and won three points, against the run of play, some may point out, but in the end, it will mean very little. The Eagles justified their reputation of a tricky customer to the fullest in this match.
MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea 5, Maguire 6, Lindelof 6, Wan-Bissaka 7, Shaw N/A (34′ Young 7), McTominay 7 (85′ Mata N/A), Pogba 7.5, Lingard 5.5 (56′ Greenwood), James 6.5, Martial 6.5, Rashford 6.
CRYSTAL PALACE: Guaita 6, Cahill 7, Kelly 7, Ward 7, van Aanholt 7.5, Milivojevic 7, Kouyate 6.5 (83′ McCarthy N/A), McArthur 7, Zaha 6.5, Schlupp 7 (80′ Townsend N/A), Ayew 8 (75′ Benteke 7).
GOALS: Ayew 32′, James 89′, van Aanholt 90’+2.
YELLOW CARDS: Milivojevic 38′, Cahill 41′, Wan-Bissaka 46′, James 71′, Zaha 79′, Guaita 87′.
REFEREE: Paul Tierney.
DATE & VENUE: August 24, 2019, Old Trafford, Manchester.
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