Crystal Palace 0-2 Man United: A “routine” away win

Wayne Rooney volleyed home a brilliant second goal to secure the win.

Author: Rob
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Manchester United went to South London on Saturday evening, and emerged with a creditable 2-0 win against in-form Crystal Palace. In another era – i.e. the one that ended last May – this would’ve been considered the archetypal ‘routine’ away win in the Premier League, but almost amazingly, this was United’s first away win of 2014. How quickly times change. On the day, a penalty from Robin van Persie and an excellent first time shot by Wayne Rooney – both goals coming after some excellent play by Patrice Evra – made the difference on Saturday. As always, we look forward to hearing from everyone in the comments.

Defence: Solidity covers up the old-age gap
Crystal Palace were defensively well-organised, and clearly set up to attack United on the break, using the pace and skill of Tom Ince, and the aerial ability of Marouane Chamakh and the returning Glenn Murray. Palace actually ended up with more shots and shots on target than United (15/6 vs 14/5) but David de Gea was equal to everything, and only had to stretch to deal with one shot that deflected off Chris Smalling in the first half.

Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were paired together for the first time in 2014, and the understanding between them meant there weren’t too many nervous moments. It was good to see Rio back in the side, especially as Jonny Evans is currently out injured – Evans aside, he’s the only United centre-back who can be reliably expected to pass the ball more than five yards.  When it came to the work of defending, the back four – including right-back Chris Smalling – did a good enough job, and were solid enough to withstand just about everything Palace threw at them. Palace had quite a few good moments in the game, but never really had a sustained spell of dominance or pressure on the United backline.

One thing that did encourage Palace forward, however, was the large gap between midfield and defence that opened up whenever a United attack broke down. Because of Rio and Vidic’s vastly diminished speed, they tend to hold a relatively deep line. This often causes problems when United are on the front foot and the attackers, midfielders and fullbacks are pushing up and chasing goals. Luckily, Fellaini, Carrick and Smalling were often quite diligent in getting back to support the backline when Palace launched their counters.

Midfield: Encouraging signs in the centre
Marouane Fellaini made his first start of 2014 at Selhurst Park. While the Belgian didn’t set the world alight yesterday, there were some encouraging signs that he will at least make a positive contribution in United’s colours. Unlike the woefully sluggish performances with which he polluted our eyes in 2013, he was mostly very sprightly yesterday, getting in the faces of opposition midfielders, winning the ball back, passing it around a bit, and getting forward to support the attack – the latter of which has been sorely lacking from central midfield for ages. Near the end of the first half, a wonderful chance fell to Fellaini in the box, but he made a complete mess of it. His forward passing in particular still leaves much to be desired, but the mere fact that he was attempting forward passes is an improvement upon the sickly, pedestrian fare inflicted upon supporters when last he was seen in United colours. There is much for him to improve on before he can be considered United quality – and yet more before £27.5 million can be considered anything but a total ripoff – but his display yesterday at least suggests he can contribute something to the squad in the remaining months of the season.

After a good game against Arsenal a week and a half ago, Michael Carrick followed up with another strong display in London yesterday. In an injury-disrupted season, it’s the first time the Geordie has had two good performances in a row. United have to hope that his form continues to improve like this, if the final few months of the season are to have any meaning at all. At Palace, Carrick’s duties were simple and he carried each out to a high standard – maintain the ball, circulate it to the attacking players, win it back quickly. There’s no surprise that with Carrick commanding the ball in the manner he did yesterday, as well as the presence of more sophisticated attacking talent in front of him, United were far less prone to the ridiculous crossing disease that has infected their play for most of the campaign.

Attack: Getting to know each other
Excitingly, this was the first time that a front four of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj had been named together in a United first XI. The trip to Selhurst Park suggested that they will need more time to work on learning each other’s game – Rooney and Mata dropped deep, often crowding each other out, while Robin didn’t always make the runs his suppliers expected of him – yet there was enough in there to suggest that they will figure it out sooner rather than later. Crystal Palace’s excellently organised defence should be given a lot of credit, as they did as much as could possibly be asked to frustrate United’s schemers.

Adnan had a difficult task, asked to stay pretty wide on the left. Yet he still looked like United’s best hope of a goal in the first half, with his directness and willingness to shoot causing problems – the other attackers would do well to learn from this when faced with a packed defence. The excellent interplay between Adnan, Mata and Evra yielded the chances that led to both goals, and while such reliance on the left side is probably unhealthy for the long term, it is clearly going to be our most effective source of chances for the forseeable future.

While Juan Mata started in a theoretically right-sided position, he drifted inside as much as possible to try to conduct United’s attacking play. As others have noted, this tactic will be far more effective when Rafael is available at right-back, as Chris Smalling simply doesn’t offer the attacking thrust to give United a right-sided option when Mata does this. The Spanish new boy looked much more effective after United scored the first goal and some more space started opening up between Palace’s midfield and defence. Similarly, moving into a central position when Valencia replaced van Persie, with Rooney moving up top, freed up even more space for Mata, and his clever playmaking almost immediately fashioned a good shooting chance for Fellaini. With Mata in the side, it does give United some interesting options, especially in situations where Robin is unable to play. Given how the final 10-15 minutes played out at Selhurst, it would certainly be worth seeing what happens with Rooney up top and Mata in behind.

Brilliant goal aside, Rooney had a good but largely unspectacular game. His passing was better than it has been in weeks, and like Mata he was happy to get involved in build-up play as much as possible. Given his fat new contract and the likelihood that the team will be built around him in future, it’s critical that his understanding with Mata grows as quickly as possible.

This was one of United’s best passing performances of the season, with all of the side’s most accurate technical players (Carrick, Mata, Januzaj) showing what they can do. Against a stubborn defence, they maintained just enough incision about them to deliver the goals required for victory. The football is still not as exciting as we would like it, but at least from this display there is the promise that better is forthcoming. It probably won’t come on Tuesday against Olympiakos, as Moyes will probably look to keep it tight and break crossing records with the likes of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia in tow. United are in 6th place for now, level on points with Mr. Moyes’s old side Everton – who have a game in hand. Onwards and upwards, to maybe just outside the Champions League places.

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