LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Manchester United’s 2-1 Premier League win against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Wednesday.
1. Man United earn admirable victory
Jose Mourinho insists Manchester United’s performances this season haven’t been adequately rewarded in terms of points, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s superb late winner means he’ll have no such complaints on this night. United were very impressive in the 2-1 victory at Selhurst Park — the Red Devils’ first back-to-back Premier League wins since August — and while they relied on some late magic to clinch the win, that was always their trademark during the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Ibrahimovic’s goal wasn’t the most spectacular of his career, but it was a truly outstanding centre-forward’s goal. Paul Pogba received the ball in an inside-left position, turned past Yohan Cabaye with such force that the Frenchman fell to the floor, and slipped a straight through-ball in behind the defence. Ibrahimovic made the right run, raced onto the ball, glanced over towards the goal to see Wayne Hennessey advancing, and from a tight angle, he brilliantly clipped the ball over the diving goalkeeper and just inside the far corner. It was truly outstanding.
United were the better side for long spells here. Their opener came from a set piece — an area Palace have had considerable problems with recently — in first-half stoppage time. Juan Mata’s delivery wasn’t great, but Ibrahimovic cleverly shuffled his body into a position where he could chest the ball goalward, and Pogba was first to the loose ball, smashing home from close range.
United deserved their 1-0 half-time lead — despite questions of both offside and handball on the opener — although were then guilty of dropping their level of intensity. But this was largely what Mourinho wants from United: control in midfield, the defence well-protected and clever passing moves between their technical attacking players. They needed to wait until the 88th minute for the winner, after Mata had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, but there was much to admire about this performance.
2. Mourinho finds midfield success with 4-3-3
United were in control for the majority of this game, and it was a particularly fine performance from the midfield trio of Pogba, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera.
Those three are, on paper and on the pitch, perfect for this system. Carrick has been outstanding in recent matches and this role, at the base of a 4-3-3, suits his skill set perfectly, especially in a game like this, when not being pressed. He positioned himself deep in front of the defence, communicating with his centre-backs to block off passes into Palace’s forwards, and simply switching play from flank to flank when the ball came his way.
Herrera, meanwhile, is the perfect player for the centre-right role, shuttling forward effectively to combine with Mata; the two Spaniards boast the best partnership in this United side. Herrera is also a highly intelligent player and knows when to start the press, often pushing up and urging his teammates forward in support. Without him, this side would lack urgency.
Then there’s Pogba, another player suited to this system. He likes freedom to come short and swoop long-range diagonal passes into attack, but also freedom to push forward and combine with the striker. Here, he did a little of both: orchestrating play on occasion, with Carrick pushing forward slightly, but also racing in behind midway through the first half to produce a fine volleyed attempted from a tight angle with his weaker left foot, saved by Hennessey. He’s essentially a technical box-to-box player, and needs a 4-3-3 to showcase his all-round qualities.
The 4-3-3 now seems established as Mourinho’s first-choice system, but it’s strange he spent the opening weeks of the season playing 4-2-3-1. This shape always suited his players better, and the recent improvement in results demonstrates that perfectly.
3. Pardew’s Plan B nearly pays off
On paper, Crystal Palace’s starting XI appeared a simple 4-5-1 system with Lee Chung-Yong and Wilfried Zaha out wide, and Christian Benteke up front. But, in fact, it was something entirely different. Alan Pardew decided to use the in-form Zaha up front alongside, and often in advance of Benteke. He was presumably attempting to use Zaha’s pace, and his determination to succeed against the club where he endured a frustrating spell in 2013-14, which amounted to just two league appearances.
The pattern of the game, then, was obvious: Manchester United could dominate possession and Palace would play almost solely on the break, looking for balls in behind to Zaha and long balls to Benteke’s head. But realistically they were rarely capable of supplying the front two, because they struggled to work the ball past United’s press.
Zaha’s movement was good, drifting into pockets of space towards wide areas, but he simply didn’t receive the ball in promising positions. His first major contribution was sprinting back 20 yards to tackle Wayne Rooney, which brought a cheer from the crowd, but led to little in the way of a promising attack.
This was as pure a 4-4-2 as you’ll ever see from Palace, and with Zaha told to stay high up against the opposition backline and Benteke hardly likely to drop into midfield and help win possession, Palace were forced to retreat into two banks of four and watch United’s three central midfielders keep possession.
Pardew had a Plan B, though. Joe Ledley replaced Mathieu Flamini at half-time in a like-for-like change, and immediately attempted a good long-range shot past the far post. In fact, Palace’s next good chance, midway through the second half, also came from range; this time James McArthur hammered a shot towards the top corner, which produced a truly stunning save from David De Gea.
But Palace also changed shape, with Ledley and McArthur joining Cabaye in the centre and Zaha moving to the flank. Now, Palace were competing in midfield, and upped their game as United’s tempo dropped. Their equaliser wasn’t exactly coming, but it was far likelier than before half-time.
Joel Ward dribbled forward dangerously from left-back, prodded the ball inside to Damien Delaney, surprisingly only 25 yards from goal, and the Irish centre-back produced a brilliant, instinctive back-flick into the path of McArthur, who finished smartly. The Scottish midfielder has been one of the division’s most underrated performers this season; it was his fifth goal of the campaign.
But this angered United. Rooney, quiet for much of the second period, suddenly curled a long-range shot excellently tipped around the post by Hennessey. Minutes later, Mata prodded home from close range, but was wrongly denied by an offside flag. United were in the ascendancy, and ultimately Palace couldn’t hold on.