There was one minute where it all fell apart for Manchester United.
Things were going good, not great for United against a Crystal Palace team with little interest in playing. Over the first 20 minutes United had settled into the match. They’d need something more, but Palace had offered almost no threat going the other way.
That all changed in the 24th minute. It was ultimately about 55 seconds - from when the clock said 23:08 until the clock read 24:03 - that decided the game. In those 55 seconds Manchester United would turn the ball over four times in their own half, most of them reckless, before frustration settled in and a dumb foul was committed. Palace would score from the ensuing free kick and that was all they needed to come to Old Trafford and take all three points.
It started with a United throw in on the right side. Diogo Dalot throws it in towards an open Bruno Fernandes on the half turn. With one touch Bruno passes it forward to striker Rasmus Hojlund. Hojlund tries to play it back to Bruno on his first touch but doesn’t get enough power on the pass. Bruno has to go into a 50/50 duel to receive the pass and doesn’t win it, giving Palace the ball and another chance to attack.
Palace don’t do much. Six seconds later they attempt a cross from a weak position on the left flank. It’s not only blocked by Raphael Varane, but it’s one touch pass out of the box to Casemiro. Casemiro tries a one touch pass to Dalot who is actually looking up field. It’s a poor pass that takes him close to the touchline, so Dalot tries to give it back to Casemiro.
The only problem is the Brazilian is oblivious to the man behind him. He thinks he has time to wait for the pass to get to him. Jordan Ayew had other ideas and came from behind to win possession back for Palace.
As Palace try to reset and settle down, Facundo Pellistri kicks into high gear getting back and quickly stealing the ball back for United. The ball comes to Casemiro who tries a left footed pass to Hojlund. But the pass is slow and the Dane doesn’t hold off his man, who gets around him to intercept the pass. It’s the third turnover in 30 seconds and the second in about 10 seconds that Casemiro is responsible for. Palace now have the ball and this time they’re facing United’s goal and can run at them.
Cheick Doucouré makes a sharp pass to Jeffrey Schlupp - in a tight space between Mason Mount and Victor Lindelof at the top of the box.
Schlupp bodies off Mount to get control of the ball. He turns towards Lindelof and sees he’s got plenty of space to go to his right, because United left back Sofyan Amrabat is busy playing in central midfield.
Lindelof does well to contain him. Amrabat, who covers about every blade of grass, gets back to effectively trap Schlupp and take away almost all of his options.
Schlupp drives to the corner before realizing he has no other options than trying a cutback and praying a teammate is there. The cutback is scooped up by Mason Mount.
Mount turns and begins running up the pitch. He doesn’t have many options as Palace are doing a good job of staying with United. If you’re looking to launch a counter attack, it’s not there.
United want to play out from the back. That is the optimal way of defending - the opposition can’t attack if they don’t have the ball. Hoofing the ball away is essentially just giving it back to your opponent “have another go at attacking us.” That’s not United’s philosophy. They want to keep possession of the ball.
However, there are times where older heads will take over and say now isn’t the time for philosophy. Sometimes you just need to boot it away, take a breath, let all your teammates get back into shape, and say “we go again.”
This is one of those times. United have just turned the ball over in their own third three times in 40 seconds. There were both mental and physical mistakes. Their left back was just in central midfield and then ran all the way back to the byline.
If ever there was a time to just launch the ball all the way down the pitch, yell at your teammates to “wake the hell up,” while also giving them a chance to catch their breath, settle down, and get back into formation, this is it.
Instead, Mount plays it to Rashford and continues running forward. Rashford has nowhere to go so he squares to Casemiro. The Brazilian takes a heavy touch, but more importantly for the second time in less than a minute, has no idea there’s a man closing him down from behind.
United had their fourth turnover in 50 seconds. The third that Casemiro is responsible for. This is precisely when you can expect bad things to happen to you. You’ve turned it over four times in under a minute, frustration is going to settle in. And when frustration sets in, someone is going to do something stupid.
Joradn Ayew has the ball on the right side, he tries to run at Amrabat and Amrabat closes the door. Ayew begins turning away, but Amrabat is frustrated, He wants the ball back now. Even when Ayew is running away from goal Amrabat continues engaging him until he Ayew goes down and a foul is given.
It’s a soft foul, but these fouls are always given (Ayew has body position on Amrabat). More importantly, it’s completely unnecessary. Ayew is moving away from goal, he’s getting awfully close to the touchline and doesn’t have anywhere to go but backwards. Your job as a defender is done, you have to live to fight another day.
Instead, United gave away an entirely preventable free kick in a dangerous area. These are the types of free kicks that have a way of always coming back to hurt you. And a minute later, it did.
You can try to point fingers as to how this was defended but ultimately this was just a sensational hit. It happens, there’s nothing you can do about it but tip your cap.
In previous seasons it wouldn’t be a big deal for United to go 1-0 down at home thanks to a fluke set piece with over an hour left to play.
But this isn’t previous seasons.
Far too many times over the past year we’ve seen this team’s heads drop after going behind or conceding an equalizer. It’s an indication that they don’t have faith in the plan and they begin forcing things and trying to play hero ball.
Just over a minute after going behind, United were already launching ambitious shots from outside the box.
Casemiro “nearly scores on this” but the result doesn’t change the fact that it’s poor shot selection. It’s a shot taken on the half volley from 29 yards out. It has an xG rating of 0.01 meaning you would only expect it to result in a goal once out of 100 opportunities. There’s still over an hour to play, you shouldn’t already be relying on the sensational to get you back in it.
If Casemiro’s attempt was a one off it wouldn’t be a problem but it wasn’t. United only took one more shot in the first half. Five of their 12 second half shots were blocked as United often had either made up their mind to shoot, or took bad shots out of frustration.
Palace came to Old Trafford with half a plan. They were going to set up in a low block and be tough to break down. Maybe they could knick a goal on a counter attack or set piece and steal a result?
They got their goal from the set piece and just fell further into their block - attempting just five more shots the rest of the way with two coming off the same sequence.
They put the onus on United to take the game to them and break them down. United couldn’t do it. Their 77 percent possession, 925 touches, and 82.8 field tilt were all the highest of the Erik Ten Hag era, but all came from the fact that Palace were just letting United have the ball.
Naturally those numbers lead to 19 shots, but only 1.3 xG. Their 0.07 xG per shot was well below the league average of 0.10. United only took two shots that had an xG value greater than 0.1 one of them was a header, which is a bit of a false number because only Statsbomb’s model properly values headers since they are much more difficult to score on. This is also why United have missed 12 of the 14 “big chances” they’ve created this season. A disproportionate amount of those big chances end up being headers.
United have had trouble breaking down low blocks in the past. Last season Erik Ten Hag’s solution was to be patient and drag teams out of their block, then move the ball quickly through the lines to almost create a transition for United to strike.
This season teams are letting United have it at the back, and staying disciplined enough to avoid being dragged out. United’s attack has suffered. They’ve got the 11th highest xG and the 13th most goals. 10th in the table is about right for them right now.
United are way better than this, but they need to figure their attack out fast. Teams are doing their homework and know what stifles this team.
Until they get it together, one bad minute of play and one set piece could be all it takes to let a match slip away.