Losing at home to Crystal Palace was a terrible start to the season for Manchester United. But it was the performance that led to the result, rather than the result itself, which was most frustrating.
As United now prepare to face Brighton in Saturday’s early kick-off, seeking their first points of what was shaping up to be a season of great promise as the 2019/20 campaign drew to a close, it is vital that the team steps up its performance level and shows more than a week ago.
Palace saw United coming last weekend. They knew exactly how to defend against an attack that lacked imagination and knew exactly how to exploit a centre-back pairing that lacked mobility.
Part of the issue has been that United were still in action from the delayed 2019/20 season until mid-August as a result of Europa League knockout commitments, around three weeks after the most of the rest of the Premier League began their summer break.
It was a short summer break for all, but United’s was even shorter, despite their opening game being postponed to ease the strain. That in turn had a knock-on effect for pre-season and a number of players didn’t begin training until the Monday before the Saturday they faced Palace.
It is easy to find further excuses when one considers that Paul Pogba had to have time off because he tested positive for coronavirus, while Harry Maguire wound up on trial in Greece and Mason Greenwood was briefly isolated from the rest of the group as a result of breaking COVID protocol while on international duty with England. United will happily point to such things as factors behind such a disjointed performance. But excuses are convenient.
Tactically, United actually had more time to directly prepare for the game because of a clear week in the build up, compared to Palace, who had been in action twice – in the Premier League and Carabao Cup – in the seven days that preceded kick-off. The week before, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer already knew about Pogba, Maguire, Greenwood and his other personnel problems.
It can therefore only be hoped that United’s lack of impetus was the result of a lack of match fitness and blunted sharpness owing to the unique circumstances. It would be thoroughly alarming if Palace were tactically superior because they just are.
This weekend’s game against Brighton comes with the benefit of an extra week of training with a more available squad, plus competitive minutes for a number of players against Luton in the Carabao Cup – another laboured affair until the latter stages.
With more training, United ought to be sharper against Brighton than they were against Palace. If that is the case, the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes should be at least a little bit closer to the level they were at in the early stages of ‘Project Restart’ and not as lacklustre and limited as last week’s game.
United’s defensive frailty is another issue, but it could be masked by an improved attacking display.
The key is to create more meaningful chances, which wasn’t the case against Palace. United dominated possession with 76% of the ball, mainly because the visitors were happy to play without it, and managed 17 attempts at goal – but only four of those were on target. Palace, despite their minimal possession, actually had five shots on target during the game.
Fans will hope that more training since last week means a sharper performance, which will in turn result in more chances created, more goals and, ultimately, a positive result. But if United show no signs of improvement against Brighton, the problems run deeper and are much more of a concern.