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Tactical Preview: Crystal Palace v Manchester United – Barclays Premier League 2015/16

After a thoroughly underwhelming night at Old Trafford and a penalty shoot-out defeat to Championship side Middlesbrough on Wednesday night, Manchester United need a reaction and need a performance. After 120 minutes of dire, goalless football, changes will be needed to refresh the side. Not just to refresh their fitness, but to refresh their ideas because questions are rightly being asked about the ‘philosophy’ under Louis van Gaal.

Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger are all likely to be recalled this weekend, returning United to a more familiar lineup than the experimental team that played in the Capital One Cup this week. Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard were two of United’s better performers on the night though and should be considered for selection in the coming weeks. One bold change that could be made at Selhurst Park would be to drop Wayne Rooney and free Anthony Martial to play as the no.9 in his absence.

There are established perceptions about this Manchester United side which are almost irrefutable. They are organised and strong defensively, they keep possession as well as any other side and they aren’t particularly free-scoring. The first two traits are extremely desirable in a successful team but when combined with the third it often leads to dull matches with little entertainment value for the fans. Strangely enough, that shouldn’t always be a concern to a manager or coach, but when that same playing style stops getting positive results, then you have a problem.

That’s the problem Manchester United are facing.

Barclays Premier League possession statistics - correct as of 29.10.15. Credit: whoscored.com

Barclays Premier League possession statistics – correct as of 29.10.15. Credit: whoscored.com

Louis van Gaal’s men are second in terms of average possession and second in terms of pass accuracy, behind Arsenal on both fronts. As I say, they keep the ball as well as anyone in the league. When it comes to shots-per-game though, they are 16th. Crucially they are so far behind title rivals Arsenal and Manchester City that it is almost incomparable.

Manchester United’s issues stem from a lack of forward runs and options in the final third. In the last league outing against Manchester City, United dominated the ball once again but rarely threatened the City goal. It was apparent how desperately they were in need of penetration. Vertical movement via midfield or forward runners or penetrative passing from deeper areas.

In truth one brings the other, especially with the quality in Manchester United’s midfield. With technicians like Schweinsteiger, Herrera and Mata in the side, if there are genuinely good runs being made at the right time with the right frequency, this side will make chances.

The question that needs asking is who is going to make those runs?

This is not another personal attack on Wayne Rooney’s performances but against Manchester City he was in the box so infrequently that United rarely had a focal point in advanced areas. His lack of presence in that area shows how few runs he’s even making into that area and that will filter down to the midfielders and eventually the entire team is just camped in the middle third of the pitch, keeping the ball without ever threatening the scoresheet.

Wayne Rooney heat map vs Manchester City - 25.10.15. Credit: Squawka.

Wayne Rooney heat map vs Manchester City – 25.10.15. Credit: Squawka.

It does appear to be an issue with the way United are instructed to play, which is why I made the point that it is not an attack on Rooney per se. For a forward player to be so isolated from his team when they have so much of the ball is strange and something has to give. You cannot be successful if you can’t provide your lone forward with chances in front of goal.

Going the other way Crystal Palace have threats of their own, particularly on the counter-attack. In fact Manchester United’s possession based style of play will suit Palace. They’ll be more than content with sitting back, soaking up any pressure and relying on the pace of Wilfried Zaha, Dwight Gayle and Yannick Bolasie on the break.

Yannick Bolasie attacking performance vs West Ham - 17.10.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Yannick Bolasie attacking performance vs West Ham – 17.10.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Bolasie is Palace’s outlet. He’s everywhere for his team. He’ll start attacks from deep, take players on and provide assists and he’s a goal threat too. With all this emphasis on United’s attacking play and how they can turn possession into goals, they must be wary of the threat Crystal Palace carry in their own creative players. As you can see from the statistics above, even in defeat to West Ham in Palace’s last home game Bolasie was a major attacking threat.

Like many of the problems that Manchester United have and will face this season, they do have the tools to deal with Bolasie and Zaha and nullify the counter-attacking threat posed by Saturday’s opponents. In Morgan Schneiderlin, United have a midfielder who has demonstrated an almost perfect reading of the game, protecting his back-four and stopping opponent attacks before they’ve even had a chance to begin.

Morgan Schneiderlin defensive performance vs Manchester City - 25.10.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Morgan Schneiderlin defensive performance vs Manchester City – 25.10.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Against Manchester City, Schneiderlin was a perfect screen. He protected his right-back, his left-back, both central defenders and went head-to-head with Yaya Toure and came out on top, all with relative ease. His lateral movement and intelligence to spot danger as it is developing is second to none. Most importantly of all though are the interceptions that Schneiderlin consistently makes in that central area. He wins the ball back before they even reach the final third as the opponent is building from deep areas. That is where Bolasie will try to pick the ball up and run from, trying to expose the back-four and go 1 vs 1 against a United defender. Alternatively, Palace midfielders will try to release Bolasie early, with passes from those deeper areas. With the likes of Yohan Cabaye in Palace colours, Schneiderlin’s reading of the game will be tested this weekend.

I’m sick of saying it though. I’m sick of identifying the lack of creativity in forward areas, sick of praising United’s work in possession and sick of looking at United and thinking they’ve done fantastically well in multiple areas of the game, only to let themselves down in the final third. The good news is they are only two points off the top. Win on Saturday and they keep the pressure on in the hunt for the title and all the criticism will slowly become background noise.

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