THIS first win in more than a month for Manchester United was a disjointed affair. Louis van Gaalâ€™s men are just not dominating in a manner expected for the Â£150m-plus summer outlay.
While the mood is better this current United is hardly an upgrade on last seasonâ€™s David Moyes vintage. They hoarded possession here so the result was correct â€“ the match-winner, Juan Mata, came close to a second when hitting a Crystal Palace post late on â€“ yet with the visit to Arsenal coming up after the international break there is more pondering to be done.
Van Gaal said: â€œWe had patience but we need more speed and more switches [in play].â€ This sluggishness is a feature this term. How can this be changed? â€œThatâ€™s difficult against a defending team but you can give the pass with more speed. Then you can switch the play,â€ said the manager. â€œYou make them move and run after that ball and at the end, every team is tired. Then one or two or three players forget the shape and thatâ€™s what I mean.â€
The big positive is that a win is a win, of course, and United are up to sixth in the chase for a Champions League place. As Van Gaal said: â€œWe are now two points behind fourth place, so itâ€™s in our hands. I am happy. After the goal, we killed the game for the first time. We did it well and deserved to win. I am happy with the three points and we stay in the race to end in the places that we want to be in. Thatâ€™s important.â€
A United XI showing two changes from last Sundayâ€™s derby defeat began brightly as Ãngel Di MarÃa smashed a free-kick against the Palace wall. Marcos Rojoâ€™s dislocated shoulder and Chris Smallingâ€™s suspension meant yet another shuffling of Van Gaalâ€™s defensive pack. This time he moved Daley Blind to centre-back and recalled Paddy McNair to maintain his preference for a left-right foot combination.
This was his 11th different combination at centre-back, a telling illustration of the problems that have plagued Van Gaal, and near the halfâ€™s end were two scares. Yannick Bolasie sprinted along Unitedâ€™s right and curved over a ball that hit Luke Shaw with Fraizer Campbell closing in.
The other moment of danger occurred moments beforehand. Palace launched a long ball at McNair who, wrongly, allowed this to bounce â€“ he may have thought the nearby Blind would clear â€“ and Campbell had a clear chance in front of David De Gea. But the No10â€™s attempted lob was too high.
Van Gaal said: â€œWe didnâ€™t have to defend much but youâ€™re always only one moment away and that came in first half with the lob over De Gea. Itâ€™s always difficult to beat teams who are only defending.â€
To this accusation Warnock said: â€œI think thatâ€™s the best opportunity Iâ€™ve had to beat Man United. The chance we missed was the best opportunity of the game with Fraizer Campbell. If we could have got in front then the crowd would have grown restless.â€
Shaw has endured a stuttering start at United since joining in the summer but he provide the periodâ€™s finest moment. He picked up possession in a deep position and surged straight downfield scattering a backpedalling and panicky Palace before him and, when the shot came, only a fine Julian Speroni save denied Shaw a classic Roy of the Rovers goal.
After the break a Di MarÃa free-kick from the left found Robin van Persie who played in Marouane Fellaini. Again the ball would not quite fall right and the Belgianâ€™s snapshot was blocked. Next up to try and break the deadlock was Wayne Rooney. McNair rushed forward with the ball and squeezed a pass to him. But as in the first half when trying to direct the finish, Rooneyâ€™s radar proved off.
Adrian Mariappa now posed a question from Palace when scooping a cross into the area that needed David De Geaâ€™s long reach to pluck from the air but as the hour passed the contest remained scoreless though United were unlucky when a Fellaini header was cleared from the Palace line by James McArthur.
Now, Van Gaal made his move as off came Adnan Januzaj for Mata. Moments later, slick interplay between the Spaniard and Fellaini and Di Maria and Mata beat Speroni.
â€œHe didnâ€™t change our formation or style but he scores goals â€“ and because of that, we won,â€ said the manager.
Mata, who has been dislodged from a starting place, was understandably pleased. â€œIt was probably one of our most important wins. We needed three points. I got a goal and am very happy today. When you come on, you try to change the game. It was always on my mind â€“ luckily I did it.
â€œNow itâ€™s time to rest. Hopefully after the international break weâ€™ll get some players back.â€ – The Guardian