Manchester United won a club record eighth consecutive away match, beating Crystal Palace 3-1 in the Premier League, thanks to a brace from Romelu Lukaku and a late insurance strike from Ashley Young.
Solskjaer took a United team to South London that was wrecked by injuries. Of the starting front six on Wednesday, only Paul Pogba was part of the Norwegian’s strongest team. Summer signing Fred made a rare start, and Diogo Dalot was pushed into service in a more attacking role, alongside two players having disappointing seasons in Alexis Sánchez and Lukaku.
Lukaku has looked a shadow of the player he was last season, through some combination of being physically jaded and short on confidence, and now also finds himself ill-suited to Solskjaer’s brand of football. When Luke Shaw’s corner in the 8th minute found Lukaku arriving in acres of space with the whole goal to hit, it was a sign of his diminished stock among United fans that most were only half-surprised that he blasted the ball over the top.
United were almost immediately made to pay for Lukaku’s profligacy — it wouldn’t have been the first time this season — but fortunately Andros Townsend, after being let free by Fred, missed his near post opportunity at the other end as well. It wasn’t Fred’s last unimpressive moment. The Brazilian spent most of the first half misplacing passes, getting robbed of the ball, and generally looking like a competition winner.
Lukaku had recently suggested that Luke Shaw should be a contender for Manchester United’s player of the season, and (even though he’s wrong), he helped make his point in the 34th minute. Shaw got into the box with the latest of many enterprising forward runs he had been making in the first half, and found Lukaku in not much space. The Belgian still managed to quickly get a shot away that arrowed into the far corner to put the visitors ahead.
Yet again, Palace created a chance of their own right after the restart, but this time it was Jeff Schlupp’s turn to spurn a great chance at goal. United’s makeshift midfield was leaving the back four exposed, but Palace weren’t making them pay. Going forward, United’s play left much to be desired, but they entered the break a goal to the good.
United didn’t have to wait long after the restart to double their lead. After starting the second half being noticeably more proactive, United won a corner in the 52nd minute. Young’s outswinger first looked like it would come to nothing, but a United head was on the end of both the first and second balls. Lukaku then showed strength to hold off his defender, and technique to swivel and hit a side-footed half-volley into the roof of the net.
Palace did eventually make United pay for their less than focused defending. Young initially beat Wilfried Zaha to a ball on the ground, and seemed to have gotten away from his former teammate. But the United skipper dwelled too long on the ball before clearing it, and Zaha won it back. The eventual cross found the diving head of Joel Ward, whose run had not been tracked by Shaw.
After looking well in control to start the half, United were suddenly holding on to a narrow lead and ceding the majority of possession.
With the match heading for a nervier conclusion than expected, Solskjaer shelved his plans to potentially involve the youngsters on the bench. Instead, he went the pragmatic route: Marcus Rashford replaced Alexis Sánchez for the final 15 minutes, and Eric Bailly went on in place of Dalot to create a more defensive team shape.
Palace were continuing to stretch United though, and it was only poor finishing that preserved the Reds’ lead.
In the 84th minute, Young atoned for his mistake in the Palace goal. Pogba drove forward from midfield, exchanged passes with Lukaku, and then played Young in on the right side of the box. Young appeared poised to center the ball, but instead caught the Palace goalkeeper unawares with a low hard shot that found the back of the net.
With the three points now secured, James Garner came on in the final few minutes for his senior debut, topping off a hugely satisfying result.