Saturday’s late kickoff saw two teams on a three-game losing streak clash. Home side Crystal Palace have effectively nothing left to play for other than personal pride, whereas Manchester United were desperately seeking points in order to consolidate a precious fourth position above chasing Liverpool. And so at Selhurst Park, the two sides played out a sloppy, high tempo affair that resulted in the away side pulling out the win despite a major scare.
Pre match, there were a few changes from both teams that significantly impacted the match. Manchester United’s Robin Van Persie was dropped for Luke Shaw due to illness, which sparked a wholesale rejig of the team shape: Daley Blind shifted into the midfield anchor spot from left-back to accommodate Shaw, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini played just ahead of him and Wayne Rooney returned to a striking spot. This is fairly important for United, since Rooney and Van Persie’s styles are so different, and Shaw’s pace would theoretically make him a much better candidate for dealing with Palace right winger Yannick Bolasie than Blind. On the other hand, Blind’s presence in deep midfield made United slightly less fluid and composed in their build up; he’s a good player, but he’s nowhere near as composed on the ball as Herrera (who was pushed further up the field) or the injured Michael Carrick. Phil Jones for Paddy McNair was essentially a straight swap.
As for Crystal Palace and Alan Pardew, there was rather less innovation than last week’s sort-of 4-4-1-1 with Bolasie, the notoriously goal-shy winger, as a striker. Palace didn’t quite go back to their usual 4-2-3-1, but instead tilted the triangle, presumably to give them more bite in midfield. As such, Palace’s 4-3-3 included Mile Jedinak as the deepest midfielder with two all-purpose box to box midfielders in Joe Ledley and James McArthur just head of him. Jason Puncheon, who so much of Palace’s play goes through when he’s played behind the striker, dropped to the bench to compensate, and a refreshed Glenn Murray came back into the side. Adrian Mariappa also came out for Pape Souare, more or less a straight swap.
The pattern of the match was established early: Palace sat deep and tried to isolate Rooney from his midfield support. Joe Ledley kept slightly wider than the other two and kept an eye on Juan Mata’s drifts infield. With three battlers in midfield, Palace’s main method of attack was deploying the pace of the two wingers in behind United’s high line soon after winning quick ball in midfield. Unfortunately, Palace’s early promise was curtailed by a United penalty almost out of nowhere, as Ashley Young’s cross hit Scott Dann’s arm completely unpressured. This immediately compromised the home side’s gameplan, and they had to start pushing up a little more, causing the marking around Rooney to loosen and giving United a few out-balls. Palace still stuck to their original plan, but perhaps slightly more aggressive, and certainly slightly higher up the field.
Still, as much as Palace’s plans were disrupted, so too were United’s when Luke Shaw had to go off with a head injury, meaning Jonny Evans came on, with Phil Jones shuffling over. It’s interesting Van Gaal decided to opt with Jones at left-back rather than moving either Young or Blind – both of whom have played there this season – but perhaps the United manager wanted to retain the overall shape of his side and went for a straight swap instead of a rejig. This didn’t entirely pay off; Palace ended the half strongly by exploiting Bolasie’s pace and trickery up against Jones and Evans, putting some dangerous balls into the area that were just about cleared by a stretched United defence.
The shuffling of respective packs continued at half-time: Palace opted to bring on Jason Puncheon at the expense of Joe Ledley, reverting back to their usual 4-2-3-1. United, meanwhile, brought off a struggling Wayne Rooney for Radamel Falcao, resulting in a third lone striker choice in two games. Now, whilst Falcao wasn’t too much of a difference for Manchester United – it wasn’t quite a like for like replacement, but Falcao’s constant running and tendency to try to link up play was closer to Rooney’s style than Van Persie would be – Puncheon’s impact was immediate. His presence gave Murray a foil to work off, and his slide-rule passes through the channels behind the United defence began causing real problems. More importantly, his drops into space to pick up the ball before running at the United defence gave a new dimension to the home side’s attacks. One such surge should have been a penalty as he was brought down in the area, but his extra theatrics weren’t necessary and Michael Oliver waved it away.
As it happened, Puncheon’s most telling impact didn’t come from open play, but a set piece. Chris Smalling hauled down Bolasie for a free kick, and Puncheon curled home courtesy of a slight deflection off Daley Blind. Another aspect of Puncheon’s game-changing performance was his extra pressing high up the pitch. Though Glenn Murray is a hard worker, in Palace’s initial 4-3-3 he was isolated, and the two centre-backs were able to pass around him. With the addition of Puncheon in close support, the pressing turned much more into a 2-on-2 situation with McArthur monitoring forward passes into the midfielders. This nearly resulted in a goal, as Palace won the ball back high up the pitch and McArthur curled just wide.
United reacted as Daley Blind began slotting back more regularly in between the defenders, but this took out a vital link between United’s midfield and defence. Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera seemed unwilling to drop deeper to offer a passing option, and so Palace began regularly getting the better of the battle just in front of United’s defence. Conversely, United suddenly had numbers out wide as Antonio Valencia pushed on in support of Juan Mata in what rapidly turned into a rather lopsided 3-4-3 when in possession. The away side made the most of it, working the ball slowly up the wings in order to try and drag Crystal Palace’s dangerous wingers back to defend and away from their offensive line.
Every so often this broke down, however, and Palace continued to threaten, as David De Gea pulled off a superlative point-blank save to deny Murray. More importantly, United were now able hit on the break too with their numbers out wide. Ashley Young in particular had the measure of Joel Ward and looked the away side’s most dangerous player by quite some margin. As it turned out, Young was the one who produced the third goal of the match, with a high, looping cross evading both Julian Speroni and Damien Delaney and landing right on Fellaini’s head.
The final stages of the match were less tactical and more just a case of both managers attempting to maximise their attacking and defensive options on the field. Paddy McNair came on for Chris Smalling in a more or less straight swap, whilst Marouane Chamakh came on for Wilf Zaha to offer more height and Lee Chung Yong replaced Mile Jedinak’s sturdy defence with a craftier attacking presence. Despite being a goal up, United didn’t exactly try to retain possession – perhaps fearing the sort of quick ball winning that Palace were excelling at early in the first half – and instead used Fellaini as an extremely effective aerial outlet up against the smaller McArthur and Lee. Palace continued to pour crosses into the box, with De Gea again saving superbly from Murray. Though the game never petered out, United were well stocked to deal with the inconsistent quality of delivery into the box, and they saw out the game relatively comfortably.