|Photo by Soccer Advice|
The feel good factor bubble around Manchester United this season was burst as soon as game week three, as Crystal Palace spoiled United’s return to Old Trafford on Saturday. After filling the fans with optimism by accumulating four points from the first two challenging fixtures, the one that was supposed to be ‘easy’ proved to be the first hurdle. United looked toothless going forward for most of the game, and the defensive errors from previous years came back to haunt them once again in a 1-2 loss.
Here is what we learned from the game:
United lacking the creative spark
We all knew that United needed to bring in a midfielder during the summer transfer window, not only because they lost Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, but also because it was clear as day last season that the team lacked that “it” factor in the creation department. With Juan Mata getting older, and Angel Gomes being on the brink of the first team, but perhaps not quite ready for regular football, United are forced to rely on Jesse Lingard as the man playing in between the midfield and the front line. Especially now, with Paul Pogba playing a deeper midfield role this season.
The away day at Wolves was the first glimpse of how United may struggle this season once a team sets up defensively against them and they are forced to break down a wall. It was difficult, United struggled to create many clear cut chances, but had the penalty been scored United would have likely brought all three points back from the Molineux, and so that issue was kind of swept under the rug.
Then Palace came to town, and United again struggled with the key passes in the final third. There was nothing coming from Lingard, Daniel James or Marcus Rashford (the three behind the striker) for the best part of the game, with Anthony Martial being forced to feed off scraps. And still, United had the chances to win this game, but another penalty miss, questionable officiating, and sloppy defending cost them this time around. But with all that being said, the chances United did manage to create were far from enough as to what they should be against a side like Palace at home, as the season goes on and games against “weaker” teams come thick and fast, United may live to regret not bringing in a creative midfielder.
An unsure performance from Lindelof could be a window of opportunity for Tuanzebe
What most fans were probably not expecting this early into the season was defensive errors costing United games. And while it’s normal for a brand new centre back partnership to have some communication struggles during the early days, this loss was largely down to the defensive sloppiness that we saw time and time again in recent years, and last season in particular.
For the first goal, Victor Lindelof lost a soft header to Jeffrey Schlupp, which slotted in Jordan Ayew to cooly put Palace ahead. During that sequence, Harry Maguire was probably a little out of position too far away from his partner, but in his defence, the Englishman likely expected Lindelof to win that aerial duel, just like the majority of the fans did. It’s a little issue that is unlikely to happen again, but the slightest lapse in concentration tends to be punished in the Premier League.
For Palace’s winner, David De Gea was caught out, looking more like the De Gea of last season. Perhaps also because of a lapse in concentration, or a bit of complacency creeping in thinking he would have saved that shot with ease. United’s skipper capitulated on the near post once again following a low drilled shot from Patrick Van Aanholt – a shot that a goalkeeper of De Gea’s caliber is expected to save.
With the defence largely at fault for United not coming away with at least a point here, perhaps an opportunity for Axel Tuanzebe to slot in at centre back for an audition alongside his compatriot Maguire will come sooner than we may have expected.
We all know about the praises that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been singing towards United’s youth, particularly the four academy graduates that have been knocking on the first team door (Greenwood, Gomes, Chong, Garner). But so far other than Greenwood, who now seems to have established himself as a first team match day squad regular, United’s manager hasn’t brought himself to put faith into the other youngsters in competitive games. While it is somewhat understandable as it is still early in the season, it is evident that a lot of the players currently suiting up for regular minutes are surplus to requirements. And with no significant transfer business being done when it comes to the midfield and the front line, Solskjaer may have to resort to giving the youth a proper go this season.
In spite of Scott McTominay playing well in that holding midfield role, that position is far from being solidified, and with James Garner dominating the U23’s league, he is looking very much ready to be given first team minutes. The same can be said about that advanced midfield role currently occupied by Lingard. Other than the high energy that he brings in the press, Lingard is not much of a “10,” and certainly not when United are forced to break teams down. This brings Angel Gomes into the equation, who has also looked a class above his U23 opposition following an impressive pre season with the first team. A game like the one against Crystal Palace would have been a perfect opportunity to give Gomes a run out to see what he can bring forward with dangerous weapons like Rashford and Martial around him and with Pogba alongside.
There are certainly some big decisions awaiting Solskjaer in the coming weeks, and the Europa League and Carabao Cup games will be huge for players like Gomes, Garner, and Chong to stake their claim for regular first team football in the Premier League.