Manchester United may have regained second place in the Premier League following a 3-2 victory over Crystal Palace, but not without plenty of ups and downs along the way.
Goals from Andros Townsend and Patrick Van Aanholt had the Reds seriously up against it, but a Chris Smalling header gave United hope – before Romelu Lukaku came up with the equaliser, and Nemanja Matic fired home a thunderbolt in added time to secure a dramatic victory for Jose Mourinho’s men.
While there was plenty of drama on show at Selhurst Park, from an analytical perspective, this performance in a sense truly summarised everything that is both wrong and right at Manchester United at present.
On a positive note, United matched the weekend results of their closest rivals Liverpool and Tottenham. Both had picked up 2-0 victories on Saturday, adding pressure on United to nick three points, and victory will give Mourinho’s men momentum going into a crucial clash against Liverpool on Saturday.If they defeat Jurgen Klopp’s men, they will be five points clear of them, with the runners-up spot then seemingly theirs to lose.
However, Liverpool’s forwards will have looked at the defensive display on show from United tonight and now will surely relish the opportunity to let loose at Old Trafford. There is no other way of saying it, but Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelöf simply have not performed to the standards of a top Premier League defender as of late. Christian Benteke and Alexander Sorloth bullied the duo off the ball evening – and their communication was poor as they looked at sea when Patrick Van Aanholt blasted in Palace’s second.
It can also be argued that Lindelöf should’ve done much better in closing down Andros Townsend for the opener – and with forwards like Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane on the attack, United’s defence will have to up their game massively if they are to take anything from both the Liverpool game (and the rest of their remaining fixtures).
The reliance placed on David De Gea in recent seasons is beginning to become apparent once more, with the Spaniard having to make a stunning save to keep out Benteke when the scores were locked at 2-2. Had they not a world-class goalkeeper to call upon, United’s defensive woes would be far more exposed than they already are.
Also, there is the Alexis Sanchez problem. The Chilean has not adapted to his new surroundings as seamlessly as we would’ve initially imagined and lost the ball a staggering 19 times in the first half alone. While United did fight back and score three goals, Sanchez had very little influence on the game whatsoever – and Jose Mourinho will need to tweak his system once again to try and get the best out of the former Arsenal man.
Despite Sanchez being out of form, one man who certainly isn’t is Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian is in a rich vein of goalscoring form at present, firing home the equaliser at Selhurst Park, and without his goals in recent weeks – then United’s season could very well have derailed. Love him or hate him, United fans must take their hats off to the 24-year-old, as he is doing exactly what he was brought in to do at Old Trafford – finding the net.
United are a team that are struggling on the road. It looked at 2-0 that the Reds were facing into a third consecutive away defeat in the Premier League, following recent losses to Tottenham and Newcastle, and there was also the possibility that they could’ve had three away losses without scoring for the first time since 1981.
While they have performed well at home, United need to build on this victory in the coming weeks as they face tough trips to face the likes of Manchester City, West Ham and Brighton before the campaign concludes. They have lost four times on the road this season, whilst only going down once at home – and they need to continue to make Old Trafford a fortress while also taking home the spoils on their travels.
The thing going the most swimmingly of all at present though, has to be the consistent brilliance of Nemanja Matic at the heart of the United midfield. He performed fantastically against his former club Chelsea last weekend and engaged in a dogged battle with Palace’s Luka Milivojevic all evening – screening the backline excellently in the second half, which allowed the likes of Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford to roam forward and probe at the opposition. When his own opportunity to have a say on proceedings came his way, he took it emphatically with one of the goals of the season to secure the three points.
He has been one of the signings of the season, and the main reason why United currently occupy their position in the table.
While the comeback over Palace will undoubtedly boost morale at United, it really painted a picture of everything apparent at the club at present. Matic, Lukaku and De Gea have been excellent as of late, but the defence has been shocking, and they cannot expect to be continuously carried by their team-mates. Alexis Sanchez may also take note that there is no place for passengers at Old Trafford.
Saturday’s game with Liverpool represents a massive opportunity for United. They can go five points clear of their closest rivals with a win, and a home tie comes at just the right time given some tough away fixtures as of late. If the backline find solidity and Sanchez finds his feet, whilst the others maintain their current levels of consistency – then it could well be a defining week in United’s season.
Victory at Palace taught us a lot – but more so, exemplifies everything that we already know.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena.