For two minutes there was a warming, familiar feeling for United fans. They had equalised just as normal time drew to a close. Added time was looming, and they had momentum. Daniel James’ equaliser threatened to give Palace the yips, a side that had never beaten United in the Premier League.
In the end, it turned out that the warming, familiar feeling was one of incontinence, and Solskjaer’s side had soiled itself again. There was a neat turn by Paul Pogba as he looked to launch another attack, but he was smartly tackled and Wilfried Zaha’s burst past Aaron Wan-Bissaka gave the former United player the edge over the former Palace one, setting up Patrick van Aanholt for the winner.
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There was to be no comeback from that winner, but it was worse than a simple sucker punch. Crystal Palace might be dreadful and have a glum, dispiriting manager, but there was more to the result than sheer embarrassment - there was the gnawing sense that nothing was going to change this year. Take the summer break away, and United have three wins in 15 games.
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David de Gea failed to save Schlupp’s shot at the near post. One mistake is forgivable. Indeed, even a sustained run of poor form is, especially if you’re the world’s best ‘keeper. But De Gea’s downturn has persisted for so long that he is no longer close to the best. With his contract drawing to a close, United are desperate to keep a player who is one part irreplaceable and one part liability.
David de Gea for Manchester United
Image credit: Getty Images
That weakness highlights just how vulnerable United’s defence might still be. Harry Maguire and Wan-Bissaka did well, again, but Victor Lindelof was at fault for Jordan Ayew’s opener. Luke Shaw went off with another injury, already back to his inflated old physique after he came back oddly svelte from a trip to Los Angeles in the summer. Ashley Young came on in his place to remind fans that transfer business was not just sloppily executed by Ed Woodward, but piecemeal too.
When United needed inspiration, they could turn to the teenage Mason Greenwood and the slow-mo Juan Mata. Neither are poor players, but they are not reliable substitutes. There is nobody reminiscent of Solskjaer in his playing days, nor is there someone to complement Pogba when more creativity is needed. Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala, for example.
Image credit: Getty Images
There were bright spots nonetheless. They opened up Palace intermittently, and should have had two rather than a single penalty. They did not down tools and roll over as they had done in other disappointing defeats under Solskjaer. They looked fitter, and they might have won with a more competent referee. Paul Tierney was not decisively bad, but he put the dampener on United’s rhythm so often that it was like playing against a Mourinho-era Porto side.
But they still missed the penalty they were awarded. They were not strong enough to counteract an obstructive match official, they did not have the organisation to make sure that when the last five minutes approached, the back four and midfield worked to keep the ball in Palace’s half alone. They picked Jesse Lingard as a number 10 and persisted with it for longer than 12 seconds.
There are two outcomes here. One is that United have lessons to learn as a new side, and can even out their rough edges. That weaknesses can be worked on until they become strengths. That this was just a blip and that the win over Chelsea is the way forward. The second possibility is far worse. A poor transfer window and a mediocre squad does not have the heart, guile or potential to become better together or individually.
United’s fans were carrying outrage with them the whole summer, and those at the ground left early in just the second home game in the season. If it becomes apparent that this is the same United that finished the last campaign in disgraceful fashion, then Solskjaer will be gone by Christmas. Worse than that, the new manager will have no hope of doing any better.
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