Football Features

Three good things from Manchester United’s 3-1 pre-season win over Crystal Palace, and three bad too

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 13:53, 19 July 2022

10-man Manchester United beat Crystal Palace 3-1 in a pre-season game in Melbourne.

The performance was mostly positive as the Red Devils picked up their third straight win under Erik ten Hag. For an hour it was largely perfect and then after some substitutions the last 25 minutes or so were a bit sloppy.

Here are three good things from the game, and three bad too.

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GOOD:  Martial the perfect forward

Anthony Martial has gone from searing prospect to busted flush to rejuvenated maverick to absolute wasteman so far in his career and he’s only 25 years-old! Now just as his time at United appeared over, the arrival of Erik ten Hag has brought him back to the fore.

Martial was superb against Crystal Palace, just as he has been all pre-season. He scored United’s opening goal of the game with a sharp finish (his third in three games) then played a big role in the lovely attacking move for the second goal before setting Sancho up for the third.

The Frenchman looks unique attuned to the way Ten Hag wants to play football, with the focus on quick interplay and intelligent movement as well as being surrounded by willing runners is really bringing the best out of him. Martial has always had the skill-set to be one of the best strikers in the world and the heir to Karim Benzema’s throne; and with Erik ten Hag as his manager it might actually happen!

BAD: Crystal Palace’s attitude

Crystal Palace were missing so many of their best players from this game, so any analysis into their quality isn’t really fair. However under Patrick Vieira one of the most notable things about Palace was their attitude, their focus and drive. It’s all been so positive.

Not so today, however. For over an hour Palace’s players skulked around the pitch, only really putting effort in when the chance to foul United’s players came up. It was as surprising as it was disappointing.

The fact that bringing on all the youth team players for the last 20 minutes led to a dramatic improvement in Palace’s attitude and application will worry Vieira. Sure, the football will improve once they get their star men back, but attitude matters as much as ability and Palace seem to be sorely lacking in that area.

GOOD: Manchester United’s attacking movement

It’s been a long, long while since Manchester United played football that was this coherent and sharp. Sure, United have been good at times, especially under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the early days, but that was all based on either counter-attacks or individual genius.

Today we saw so much fluid football, especially from Manchester United’s forwards. They moved off the ball, they switched positions and they bamboozled Palace. The connection between Anthony Martial and Jadon Sancho in particular looks to be incredibly fruitful one.

United’s second goal was a masterpiece. A series of passes moving the ball from back to front, finding Martial who held the ball up wonderfully before slipping it to Sancho who found Martial again. The Frenchman poked it to Donny van de Beek who found Marcus Rashford for a tap-in.

“It’s all vision and ability,” said Bryan Robson on MUTV after the game. And under Erik ten Hag’s guidance, United are showing plenty of vision and ability. It’s still early, but so far Manchester United look very good.

BAD: David de Gea

David de Gea has always had an up-and-down time as Manchester United goalkeeper. He’s clearly one of the best shot-stoppers on the planet but he’s mediocre with the ball at his feet and he stays rooted to his line too often.

Against Palace we saw a good De Gea kicking performance, his passes played a part in two of the goals, undone by, of all things, a poor save attempt. Luka Miliovojevic’s 74th minute corner was headed goalward by Joel Ward and while it was low it was also right at De Gea but the Spaniard looked half asleep as he reacted far too late and let the ball sneak underneath him.

GOOD: Spots for new signings

One thing you always wonder about when a club makes new signings is where they’re going to fit in. And hile Tyrell Malacia has obvious slotted in at left-back, United will have wondered about where Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez might play.

Well for Eriksen the position seems obvious, as Donny van de Beek came on at half-time for Scott McTominay and played an 8, part of the double pivot with Fred but with clear license to get forward and be involved in attack (like getting the assist for Rashford). This is a role tailor made for Eriksen, where his passing range and creative instincts should really energise the United midfield.

As for Lisandro Martinez: some have speculated that he will play defensive midfield but the fact that Harry Maguire has been publically backed by Erik ten Hag yet also moved across to play right centre-back. This, coupled with the fact that Alex Telles keeps on playing left centre-back in friendlies even though he is not a centre-back at all, indicate that Ten Hag is creating space for a left-footed centre-back i.e. Lisandro Martinez.

BAD: Manchester United’s attacking squad depth

Much as it’s clear where United’s new signings will fit in, the squad is actually still surprisingly short on depth midfield and attack. Obviously Christian Eriksen is set to come in, and the starting unit is great, but beyond that things get sketchy.

United’s attacking depth is the wantaway Cristiano Ronaldo and the is-he-good-enough Anthony Elanga. Amad Diallo and Hannibal Mejbri have talent but look away off being ready for first-team action. Midfield has options but beyond Van de Beek and Eriksen none of them are top-class (although Fred and Zidane Iqbal have the ability to surprise).

The season is going to be long and hard, there’s no way United can get away without rotation, especially in attack. And when the back-ups drop the team’s level as much as United’s will, that’s a problem.