Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspired Manchester United to a vital 2-1 win over Crystal Palace as they recorded back-to-back wins in the Premier League for the first time since August.
Jose Mourinho made four changes to the Manchester United team that beat Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, with Eric Bailly, Daley Blind, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney returning to the starting XI. Antonio Valencia missed out through suspension, forcing Bailly into an unnatural right-back position, while Martial and Darmian were rested. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s ankle injury will force the Armenian out until at least Boxing Day.
By making the changes he did, Mourinho created his own problems in terms of Manchester United’s attacking profile. Mkhitaryan’s absence was enforced, but selecting both Rooney and Mata in the same side meant United lack pace and penetration in the final third.
Rooney and Mata are both players who like to come inside and get on the ball as much as possible. They both lack pace and both struggle in wide positions in one vs one situations. It is no surprise that they both dropped deep to get on the ball and influence the play in these areas. They completed 87% of their passes and contributed to some dominant and intricate patterns of play, but for all United’s control they were unable to break the deadlock.
For every positive contribution that Mata and Rooney made, particularly in the first half, they were inevitably creating a different problem for the rest of the team. As you can see from their heat maps, neither player operated in advanced areas too often. Without the pace of Mkhitaryan or Martial, Manchester United were missing the incisive running or the movement beyond the lines of the Crystal Palace back four. Rooney and Mata went the other way, towards their own goal, causing congestion in the middle of the pitch and slowing down United’s each phase of United’s build-up play.
In the home dugout, Alan Pardew was the author of his own side’s misfortune. Perhaps expecting Manchester United to dominate in the fashion that they did, he reverted to a much more direct style of football than we are used to seeing at Selhurst Park. Evidently the plan was to bypass United’s midfield and avoid going toe-to-toe against Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick.
Crystal Palace attempted far too many long balls to their forward players, trying to isolate Christian Benteke in an aerial battle against Manchester United’s central defenders. If successful, Benteke would hold the ball up, drag his teammates up the pitch and give Palace a foothold in United territory, or he would win the first duel and release the pace of Wilfried Zaha on the counter-attack. Unfortunately for Pardew, Rojo and Jones dealt with almost everything thrown at them and the ball came straight back at Palace, prompting wave after wave of attack from a dominant Manchester United side. Crystal Palace only completed 38% of their long passes this evening, which makes it even more difficult to understanding why they persisted with this strategy considering how they created their equaliser.
Perhaps the only time they did put four or five passes together, Palace carved through United with ease. A wonderfully inventive assist from Damien Delaney allowed James McArthur to rifle home from close range.
With the scores level, a couple of refereeing decisions went against Manchester United and it started to feel like another one of those days for Jose Mourinho’s men. But Paul Pogba, who’d been brilliant all night, stepped up in the final moments to provide the perfect pass for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score a vital winning goal.
Crystal Palace vs Manchester United
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) December 14, 2016
Playing to the left of Michael Carrick in United’s midfield three, Pogba is given licence to move forward into advanced areas and affect the game in the final third. On top of his goal and his assist, Pogba had the more shots than anyone else (4), created more chances than anyone else (4), had 122 touches of the ball (23 more than any of his United teammates) and completed 41 passes in the final third of the pitch.
He completed 91 passes against Crystal Palace and was completely dominant throughout. Everything that United did well went through him and it was the complete performance from the world’s most expensive player. Earlier on in the season, Pogba struggled to take control of matches and really exert his influence in the right way. Since Mourinho has changed the shape of the team and changed to a 4-3-3, Pogba has flourished. In a slightly more advanced role and with fewer defensive responsibilities, the former Juventus man is starting to hit top form.
In winning back-to-back Premier League matches, Manchester United have started to create real momentum. Next up is a trip to the Hawthorns to face West Bromwich Albion. With a busy schedule coming up over the festive period, the matches come thick and fast and it’s easy to put a run of wins together in a short space of time. On the 1st January, the Premier League table could have an entirely different look at both ends of the table, Manchester United will be hoping they can do enough to re-enter the conversation at the business end of the division.