Manchester United slipped to an embarrassing opening day defeat as Crystal Palace almost strolled to a comfortable victory at Old Trafford.
Donny Van De Beek struck a debut goal but it was barely even a consolation for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.
Palace were vibrant and positive in the opening stages; everything that United weren’t. Paul Pogba and David De Gea had already been fortunate to not see sloppy errors punished by the time Jeffrey Schlupp was allowed to casually take his time and cross; jockeyed, and not challenged, by Lindelof. There was Andros Townsend at the far post to finish smartly beyond De Gea.
Not for the first time, United contrived to concede a goal where the ball travelled across the entire defence, adding to the concern that the team are actually still declining in that feeling of settlement instead of improvement.
One school of thought was that Palace’s extra game to earn match fitness had helped them but the issues in United’s team were too pronounced and familiar for that to have any true credence.
It took twenty minutes for United to even test the goalkeeper and then, Pogba’s effort from the edge of the box was fairly comfortable for Palace. Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes had efforts from a similar distance but did not unduly trouble the visitors.
Rather than genuinely threaten to equalise, Palace actually looked more menacing, and De Gea was forced to make another save in first half injury time. That was the case in the early throes of the second period, too, despite United making a change at the break by bringing on Greenwood for the beleaguered James. Time and again Palace looked to have the confidence and strength to bully the United backline.
An hour in, Fosu-Mensah created the best chance for the hosts with a cross for Greenwood, but he headed wide. It was beginning to feel that they could play for three or four hours without scaring Roy Hodgson’s side.
Wilfried Zaha had the ball in the net but was offside; Solskjaer responded to the scare by bringing on Van de Beek for the poor Pogba.
Almost immediately, though, the game was up when Martin Atkinson – no stranger to controversial decisions that have punished United oftentimes in the past – gave a penalty against Victor Lindelof, somewhat harshly, for handball. De Gea does not have a great record from spot-kicks but did well to stop an admittedly poor kick from Ayew. The game went on but Atkinson pulled it back because De Gea was adjudged to be off his line under the new rules. Palace changed kicker – Zaha netted. No retake necessary this time, despite De Gea being further off his line.
United, of course, were barely capable of mustering up two shots on target so two goals to level were always going to be beyond them. When they did get their goal it came from a defensive mishap, though Van De Beek did well to maintain his composure and steer the ball into the corner.
The hopes of revival were as slim as the length of time it took Palace to make it three; Zaha got the ball on the edge of the box and brushed Lindelof out of the way as if he might as well have not been there. His shot was good and finished the game.
It rounded the sort of miserable performance from Lindelof that would, in normal times, have resulted in the immediate signing of a replacement, if only to put the Swede out of his own misery. Continuing to play him is doing nobody any favours.
Six minutes of added time were announced and it would have been United fans hoping for the game to end as Palace looked like scoring more every time they had the ball. That’s because, in spite of the controversy around the second goal, they deserved to win the game because they looked like the better team.
On this evidence, they are. On this evidence, United’s qualification for last season’s Champions League looks like the huge overachievement many were concerned it was.
Although much was attempted to be made of David De Gea’s selection, it was the sensible choice; it would have been a bigger thing to have dropped him. Elsewhere, introducing Donny van de Beek in such a way seemed straightforward, and Mason Greenwood as a substitute was probably a move from the Sir Alex playbook. Of course one could argue this player for that, but United’s performance started flat and never picked up.
There is a follow-up question or point – was that United team good enough to beat Crystal Palace? Solskjaer is not so secure in his position that he could afford to make a point about poor squad strength in the way Jose Mourinho tried, even if he wanted to.
Not that he needs to, anyway. That point ought to have been clear by the fading way United finished the season and it ought to have been firmly rammed home by the fact that all of Solskjaer’s main rivals can consider that they have strengthened in a more positive way than the Old Trafford club. It is United’s position in the top four that is the vulnerable one and whatever happens moving forward, starting the day with the team and squad United did is a negative considering the position the club were supposed to be in by qualifying for the Champions League.
A lot can change between now and October’s deadline but already the method seems to be – for how long can we get away with spending as little as possible?
It’s been an approach that has delayed signings in the past and arguably impacted results – how might United’s season have looked if Fernandes had signed in the summer, or even earlier in January, for example?
The disappointing truth for United fans is one that many struggle to comprehend, as they feel the wheel continues to turn – they hope that this time will be the time when the club’s rich tradition is matched by ambition to return it to the levels it is historically known for.
That has repeatedly been demonstrated to not be the case, and whilst there is a sensible party line aired which includes the pandemic this time around, it still feels hollow when observing the transfer activity of other clubs and the relative bargains some have still picked up.
Because there are two lines to take with this. The first is that it is an excuse for not paying £120m for Jadon Sancho. Yes, that’s fair enough. The second is that it is an excuse for the squad not being strengthened. That there aren’t the players available for that. That, of course, is frankly ridiculous.
But there is a deeper problem caused by this. There has been a complacency issue amongst the players over the last five years but that can only be compounded when the message from the top is that complacency can be the accepted standard.
Solskjaer has made noises about needing to strengthen and, inevitably and predictably, almost retreated on those comments on the eve of the season. But this was only one goal away from alarm bells ringing and when they invariably do, it’s the manager who pays the price.
We know the truth. We’ve been here before. And even if the result and performance today provokes some late action, we’ve seen that knee-jerk reactive strategy play out too. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
De Gea 5
James 4 –
Van De Beek 6