A last second draw and a loss to Arsenal in the space of four days may have momentarily made it seem that things around Old Trafford are far gloomier than they actually are. In reality, Manchester United have won six of their last eight Premier League matches, 13 of their last 15 matches in all competitions, and 13 straight at Old Trafford. They were also the only team in the top four to take all three points last weekend.
There’s no doubt things are pretty good, but that doesn’t take away the feeling that something about that Crystal Palace match on Saturday felt a little different. It could be nothing. One of those matches where United didn’t play their best game against an inferior opponent but still found a way to win. You pretend to be concerned for a day and then three days later the squad goes out there and takes care of business and it’s all forgotten.
Hopefully that’s the case, but at times this felt like a match that could be looked at as a turning point. One of those situations where in a few months you look back on it and say “Palace at home, that’s where everything changed.”
Obviously the biggest story to come out of this match was the sending off and subsequent three game suspension of Casemiro.
You don’t need me to sit here and tell you how important Casemiro is to this team. He’s a player that both makes the defense and the attackers better. His absence against Arsenal was a painful reminder of how United just don’t have a replacement for him.
Example number 1000 on how a good midfielder makes your attackers better last night— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) February 2, 2023
In one touch Casemiro intercepts and makes a pass to send United on the break.
Get players like Rashdord, Bruno, Martial in situations like this and more often than not good things will happen pic.twitter.com/6Bx5ekvIC1
Casemiro’s loss for the next three games is big, should be managable. While Leeds is always a big match for historical reasons, the reality is they haven’t caused United too much trouble recently and they just sacked their manager and replaced him with Mr. Air Pods himself. United should be able to win these matches without the Brazilian and after not being rotated in any of United’s recent cup matches, Casemiro only having to play one of the next four games may actually benefit the club long term. Furthermore, the club luckily now has Marcel Subitzer which means we’re not automatically seeing Scott McTominay return to the first team.
No matter how much you try and spin it though, Casemiro’s absence over the next three games is definitely cause for concern in the immediate term.
But this isn’t about Casemiro or the next three games. This about the longer term.
Manager Erik Ten Hag has eschewed several opportunities to rotate his squad over the past few weeks, specifically last Wednesday when United entered the second leg of the League Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest with a 3-0 lead. Based on his team selections you can deduce that Ten Hag’s strategical preference is to play his strongest team from the jump in order to get a lead and then pull players off to rest them, rather than put some of his top players on the bench and bring them on in case they’re needed. There’s nothing wrong with this approach but you can run into problems when, the team on the pitch doesn’t put the game away and can’t be taken off.
On Saturday United jumped out to a 1-0 lead just five minutes in thanks to a Bruno Fernandes penalty and it seemed like it was going to be par for the course for Ten Hag’s side, especially given they were at home. Keep the pressure on, score a couple more goals, then be able to take some players off in the second half ahead of two matches against Leeds. But that’s not what happened.
For the rest of the first half United looked stale. As I stood in the bar watching the match I lost track of how many times I said to people, “they look like they’re just going through the motions.”
At one point someone said to me, “it looks like a repeat of the first Crystal Palace match” to which I just shook my head. “They were better in that match,” I responded, “we just didn’t finish.”
Going through the motions isn’t neccessarily a bad thing. After all, United weren’t exactly conceding chances. Palace didn’t record a shot until the 39th minute, and that came on a corner kick. Their 0.56 xG in the first half is mainly because Opta’s model doesn’t account for how hard a finish this actually is.
Despite the lackluster play, the extreme lack of verticality or ability to get the ball to the strikers, I wasn’t too concerned at first about United going through the motion. The performance was reminding me of United during the 2020-21 season. That team would often play within themselves and absorb some body blows in the first half, before blowing teams away after the restart. Their biggest flaw was they had a knack for conceding often fluky goals early in matches which skewed the perception of how they were actually playing.
If you think about many of United’s matches this year, you probably have one of two perceptions of them
The first is they come out playing well in the first half, grab a lead, sometimes even grab a second goal, but as the match wears on they get tired and tend to drop deeper and deeper, absorbing pressure until the final whistle comes.
The second applies especially to matches since the World Cup break. They’ve become almost formulaic. The team plays pretty well in the first half and usually has a 1-0 lead at halftime that feels like it should be a bit more. They come out a bit better in the second half, eventually Fred replaces Eriksen and Rashford moves to striker and the game becomes a bit more helter skelter, but despite that in the last 20 minutes United tend tack on a second or a third.
Keeping both of those patterns in mind, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that United were purposely just going through the motions Saturday as a means of saving themselves. Wear down Crystal Palace in the first half, then in the second half you can bring on Garnacho, Sabitzer and maybe even Jadon Sancho to blow the game open. Before I got too concerned about United looking off it I wanted to go home and check the numbers.
Unfortunately the numbers more or less point to the first scenario this season. United have been a team that comes out of the gate hard but tend to wear down as the match goes on. However while they concede a lot more shots in the second half of matches, they still aren’t giving up shots of better quality. Almost like a controlled chaos.
There was something else that stood out when I looked at the numbers, namely Raphael Varane being the top right quadrant of the ball progression chart.
Varane is averaging 2.46 progressive passes per 90 and 0.60 progressive carries per 90, nearly identical to his numbers from last year (2.41 & 0.54). It’s not normal for Varane to be in that area of the chart. What happened here?
You didn’t have to watch the match for too long to see why this was happening. Crystal Palace were employing a tactic that United have faced many times over the past four years.
United’s best ball progressors and creators (Shaw, Martinez, Rashford, in previous years Pogba) skew towards the left side of the pitch. So, Palace over loaded their defense to the right side of the pitch (United’s left) in an effort to funnel the ball to the right. Force the ball to go to the players you think are least dangerous.
Clubs frequently leave Scott McTominay open and use his man to double someone else up. The same principle applied to United’s entire right side on Saturday. Look at how much space Aaron Wan-Bissaka has before he passes this ball over to Antony. Look at what side of the pitch all the Palace defenders are on.
Even if you replace Wan-Bissaka with Dalot here he’d have nowhere to go with the ball. Palace have clogged up the middle and have every United man covered. The only option is to keep carrying it or lay it off to Antony. Palace are more than fine with that because they know that Antony is most likely going to ignore the fullbacks run down the line as he pulls the ball onto his left foot and looks backward.
Palace know Wan-Bissaka isn’t comfortable on the ball. They know he doesn’t want to carry it. The same applies to Varane.
Here, after carrying the ball to the halfway line, Varane decides he’s done and passes out wide. That’s despite Palace defenders giving him the space to keep carrying forward. But look at where the defenders are, there’s only two Palace players further to the right of the ball, the rest of plugging up the middle. They either want Varane to have the ball, or they want it to go to United’s right.
Palace were determined not to let United beat them up the middle or down the left. They funneled the ball out to United’s right which remained a creative black hole as neither Antony nor Wan-Bissaka added much creativity.
As a result United’s attack struggled. The first half saw United take 11 shots with an xG of just 0.68 - a measly 0.6 xG per shot, which is far lower than what United have been getting in recent games.
The second half wasn’t much better. Obviously the red card changed and while I’m ignoring everything that came afterwards the incident happened in the 69th minute. In the 24 second half minutes that were played 11v11 United managed only two shots. Their pre red card total of 13 shots for 1.21 xG extrapolates to 17 shots for 1.51 xG over 90 minutes, which isn’t bad, but still far lower than what they’ve been doing recently - especially since the World Cup.
All this begs the question, why did this happen?
Did United struggle to generate an attack because Palace had a good tactical plan to nullify United’s biggest strengths? Or were United just going through the motions because they had an early lead and were trying to save themselves for the gauntlet of their upcoming fixture list?
If the answer is either one of those it’s not a cause for too much concern. But then there’s the third question.
What if United looked like they were going through the motions because they’re tired? What if they were trying to play their normal style and their legs were just not allowing them to?
It’s only one game but given how many games they’ve played in the short amount of time since the World Cup, as well as how many upcoming matches they have, it’s entirely a fair question to ask.
Hopefully this was just a one off. If United come back and blow the door off a Chris Armas managed Leeds twice the scare with Palace will quickly be forgotten. If not, that could be a bit concerning for United in the second half of the season.
Only time will give us the answer but for the moment, there’s no reason to go searching for where you keep that panic button. Even after the sending off United still kept a modicum of control with Palace’s most dangerous chances all coming from set-pieces. In the two games Palace combined for just 0.68 xG from open play.
Furthermore Casemiro getting a week off could prove beneficial, as could the potential return of Jadon Sancho, and Marcel Sabitzer only played 628 league minutes this season with Bayern. Oddly, United could go through a brutal part of their schedule and somehow come out fresher than they went in.