1) Ineffective United
Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal was so irked by Paul Scholes' midweek criticisms that he went all proverbial at his pre-match press conference. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me," was his riposte, leading FFT to wonder whether he's embarked on some sort of challenge to weave sayings into his pre-match briefings, much like the England squad did with song titles during the 1998 World Cup.
If he soon ponders that “procrastination is the thief of time”, “a friend in need is a friend indeed” and “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” before mumbling something about red sky at night, Louis van Gaal's delight, then we'll definitely think we're on to something.
Unfortunately, probably about the best saying to sum up this game at Crystal Palace would be “possession is nine-tenths of the bore”. In short, Scholes had been proved right. Very right.
United had 56% possession at Selhurst Park, completing 376 passes, but did virtually nothing with it. Despite dominating chunks of the game, they created only 3 chances and mustered just 1 shot on target.
Of those 376 passes, only 88 came in the final third. A massive 356 of them were short passes. Only 171 (45%) went forwards, with 148 going backwards and 57 going square. At one point away fans sung “We're Man United, we want to attack”. Van Gaal's side have now failed to score in the last 325 minutes of football.
Scholes bemoaned United's reluctance to dribble and cross, and they attempted only 12 take-ons and 14 crosses during the match. Palace fared better, with 31 take-ons and 22 crosses.
Palace made only 269 passes but their direct approach was much more threatening, leading to 5 shots on target and the best chances of the game when Yohan Cabaye missed a sitter and Yannick Bolasie hit the crossbar.
Palace boss Alan Pardew said: "United's style is a different style now, they're looking for that moment and perhaps today it didn't come for them. That incision is where they're lacking."
Van Gaal felt that, despite having the better of possession, United failed to score because Palace were actually the better side on the day. "Today when you are not creating so many chances I cannot complain about the lack of goals," he said. "Apart from Arsenal, it was the first time away that I don't think we were the better team."
2) No service for Rooney
One of Scholes' main complaints was that Rooney received little service in this Manchester United team, and that was certainly true at Selhurst Park.
Despite United's wealth of possession, they found it hard to bring Rooney into the game. The England striker was far from sparkling when in possession, but his personal performance was not the real problem here.
All of Rooney's 3 shots came from outside the area – a free kick saved by Wayne Hennessey, a shot blocked and a wayward effort that sailed over the bar to cheers from the home crowd. He made only 24 passes, with just 5 of them coming in the attacking third – albeit a slight improvement on the 3 he made last week against Manchester City.
3) Martial's threat wasted out wide
For the third successive league game, Anthony Martial started wide on the left with Rooney up front on his own. The tactical switch was first made against Everton to accommodate attacking midfielder Ander Herrera in place of the out-of-form (and now injured) winger Memphis Depay. Martial had previously played up front, with Rooney just behind him.
The switch worked at Goodison, when United won 3-0, but hasn't worked since. Like Thierry Henry, Martial may often edge to the left when he plays up front, but as a winger he's been virtually tied to the touchline, without the freedom needed to make a difference.
Martial rarely got in any sort of position to get a shot in against Palace and once he'd beaten one man inevitably another was along on the cover to tackle him. His only effort at goal was blocked, and he completed just 9 passes in the entire game – a minuscule amount. Only 1 of 4 take-ons succeeded.
He did however provide a sublime first-half through-ball for Rooney, who didn’t have the pace to make the most of the opportunity. One suspects that Martial would have scored had their roles been reversed, and indeed they did finally switch roles with around 20 minutes remaining. The duo both improved in the closing stages, but it was not enough time to fashion a goal.
Asked afterwards where he felt Martial's best position was, Van Gaal said: "We don't know yet because at Monaco he played always as a left winger. As a manager I have to see what is the best balance in the team. That is not so simple. I have to decide every week depending on the game plan and the qualities of the opponent."
Who should play at centre-forward for Manchester United?October 31, 2015
4) Blind faith repaid
Scholes did concede that United look well organised defensively and they recorded their 7th clean sheet of the season despite going into the game without the injured Phil Jones. That meant a role on the bench for brilliantly named 17-year-old defender Axel Tuanzebe, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but raised in the rather less exotic Rochdale.
Tuanzebe was never needed because United largely defended well, with Daley Blind providing an encouraging performance on his return to the Premier League line-up at centre-back. Blind made 13 ball recoveries and 4 interceptions, more than any other player on the field.
Chris Smalling continued his impressive season by completing 6 of 6 attempted clearances, the best of any player. Left back Marcos Rojo made 5 clearances and completed 6 tackles, more than anyone else on the pitch.
United have now conceded only 8 goals in 11 league matches – the joint-best defensive record in the league with Arsenal and Tottenham.
5) Zaha sees off Darmian
Palace started very brightly in the opening 15 minutes and although United slowed the game down for the rest of the first half, the home side improved again after the interval. Their biggest threat often came on the left via Yannick Bolasie, then former United wide man Wilfried Zaha when the duo switched after the break.
Palace appeared keen to target United right-back Matteo Darmian, who was back in the side in the absence of the injured Antonio Valencia. Darmian had been substituted at half-time in his previous two away games down south, after having a hard time against Dusan Tadic at Southampton and then Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal.
He didn't make a great start to this game either, looking hesitant and miscontrolling to give away an early chance to Dwight Gayle. Bolasie attempted 7 take-ons during the game, while Zaha – restored to the line-up for the game against his erstwhile employers – attempted a massive 16. Of those, 6 came in threatening areas once he'd switched to the left.
Darmian was booked for fouling Zaha and Van Gaal decided the risk of a red card was too great. The Italian was hooked away from home once more, lasting 65 minutes on this occasion before being replaced by Ashley Young.
"It was a really good return for Wilf," Pardew said. "Their full-back getting subbed was an illustration of that."
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