If he were watching, Roy Hodgson might have described Manchester United’s 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace as a game of “high quality”, but he would have been alone in holding that opinion. Crystal Palace haven’t given the impression that they will stay up too comfortably, and continued that form here. For the most part the south-Londoners failed to show even brief glimpses of quality, and were particularly sloppy with the ball in their own half.
On a day where neither Wayne Rooney nor Robin van Persie stole the show – despite the latter’s man of the match award – one might have hoped that United’s midfield would take advantage of a relatively weak opponent to gain some plaudits of their own. Carrick exempt, all of United’s midfielders had points to prove for the forthcoming season, and a Palace side laden with deficiencies might have been the perfect place to begin.
Although the Eagles have found a win after three games, and began Saturday only a point behind the Red Devils, their own manager Ian Holloway hasn’t kept his opinion on the quality of Palace’s side too private, describing them as “running on empty” before the season had even started. Palace have brought new faces in since that was said, but there remains an evident lack of quality in areas of their squad.
Still United’s midfield began cautiously, particularly in the centre. Palace’s midfield trio did reasonably well to suffocate space for Wayne Rooney (for the best part of 44 minutes until Dikgacoi was dismissed controversially), but Anderson and Carrick weren’t being pressed noticeably. Numerous times Antonio Valencia raced ahead of Dean Moxey only for Anderson and Carrick to prefer a shorter, slightly less risky pass. Ashley Young also had opportunities to free Valencia, but instead preferred to shroud himself in controversy, rightly yellow carded for diving in Palace’s area – the England international is struggling to endear himself to anyone.
He successfully won a penalty later on when challenged outside of the box by Dikgacoi – sent off for the offence – after Young intercepted a clumsy Mile Jedinak pass. In defence of Young the officials have to take the blame for the wrong decision being made – as easily as Young did go down. Robin van Persie converted the penalty on the stroke of half time.
Yet even Valencia, when provided with an opportunity to create, was inconsistent. Although his movement was impressive, he continued to deliver those ‘John O’Shea’ style crosses that manage to evade everyone. He’s an improvement on last year’s Valencia, but still some way off his form from the 11-12 season. He offers a lot defensively, but with Crystal Palace virtually non-existent going forward, it might have been a good opportunity to release Wilfried Zaha, who would have solely focused on tormenting former team-mate Dean Moxey.
Zaha could equally have replaced Ashley Young on the left side, who despite playing reasonably, was embarrassing. Not for the first time in his Manchester United career did the winger dive against a side that should be beaten in terms of football rather than foul play. The earlier notable incident was against QPR two seasons ago, where he won a penalty and had an opposition player sent off for a dive. “I’ve had a word with Ashley… He understands where we come from and I hope it makes a difference”, were the words of former manager Sir Alex Ferguson soon after that. Judging on the latest incident he hasn’t. David Moyes sent a similar message after the match, “I don’t want my players diving. It’s not what I want.” We can only hope that he listens this time.
The man who did replace the former Aston Villa winger was an 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj, who began his Manchester United career outstandingly. The Belgian-born attacker, who shares Cristiano Ronaldo’s birthday and made his league debut 50 years to the day after George Best achieved the same feat, made those look facts like destiny. Paddy Crerand told the club’s magazine on Best’s debut, “You would expect most young kids making their debut to be at least a little bit nervous, but the prospect of playing for Manchester United’s first team didn’t affect him in the least bit. He was completely at ease.” Without meaning to heap a huge amount of pressure on Januzaj, his performance on the pitch gave that exact impression on his own Old Trafford debut.
The vote on Manchester United’s twitter page declared Wayne Rooney as the United’s man of the match, which gave you an indication of the Red Devils’ performance. Admittedly, the striker, looking bizarre in his protective headgear, scored a free kick after 81 minutes and displayed moments of quality, but at times Rooney looked complacent, and scuffed a fairly easy chance to score in the second half. It was perhaps one of those performances that caused Ferguson to endure a difficult final few weeks with Rooney, climaxing in the transfer request that may or may have not been completely fabricated by the Scot. “When the game gets to that casual bit, he is worse than the rest of them”, were the words of Ferguson, and there were signs of that against the Eagles. Despite that, the Scot’s sentiments from last season weren’t totally true to Rooney’s performance on Saturday.
That’s because Anderson was playing, so Rooney wasn’t “worse than the rest of them”. Other than for depth, the Brazilian’s contribution to United’s squad is confusing, in the way that it’s difficult to fathom what he actually does. In the match programme Anderson was complimented briefly on his “ball-carrying”. Anderson’s pass completion on Saturday was at 82%, not bad but considering his insistence on playing it safe wasn’t that amazing. He did however set Ashley Young up well once with a defence-splitting pass, only for Young to toe-poke it straight at Speroni. Anderson also did light up Old Trafford in the second half, with laughter, as he fell over for no apparent reason. Fellaini replaced him shortly after.
Although Fellaini made a solid debut, and lifts a great burden from Michael Carrick, the Belgian still doesn’t create the chances that Fabregas, Modric, or Thiago might have done. Now that the transfer window is closed, David Moyes must find a way for United’s midfield to create chances more effectively than they have done so far this season; perhaps Shinji Kagawa will be introduced.
In the season that the number seven shirt has been relinquished by Antonio Valencia, Manchester United might have found its next owner, Adnan Januzaj.