It is not often that Manchester United loses four games in succession. Not, indeed, since 1979 – a record even David Moyes failed to break during a calamitous 10 months at Old Trafford. Yet, Louis van Gaal’s side travels to south London on Saturday with Dave Sexton’s mark in its sight after defeats to Chelsea, Everton and West Bromwich Albion over the past four weeks. With Champions League qualification at stake United has little room for further points dropped, let alone an unwelcome record matched.
Van Gaal insists that he is “not that concerned” by United’s poor run of results. One in which his team has failed to score in any of the past three games. In each a similar pattern has merged, with United hogging possession, but squandering chances against teams prepared to sit deep and soak up the Reds’ largely anaemic attack. In games against Everton and Chelsea Van Gaal’s side failed to create any real chances of note, with the opposition hitting smartly on the break. Where United did create some 26 opportunities against West Brom, the Dutchman’s forwards failed to hit the target with more than half of those opportunities.
The real concern, beyond results alone, is the apparent lack of an alternate plan, bar the now pastiche deployment of Marouane Fellaini in an attacking role. Against the Baggies at Old Trafford last weekend home supporters enjoyed the rare sight of strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in midfield, with the giant Belgian impotent up front. Chaos, not of the productive kind, ensued.
Indeed, Van Gaal’s regression over the past three games to the bizarre tactics and baffling formations of old plays in stark contrast to a run of six victories where the Dutchman fielded a largely unchanged side in a consistent 4-3-3 formation. It was a system apparently fundamentally broken by Michael Carrick’s untimely injury.
The Englishman will again be absent on Saturday tea time. And for United’s final two Premier League matches against Arsenal and then Hull City. It would be a pivotal loss, but for Liverpool’s visit to Stamford Bridge this weekend. Anything but a Scouse victory is likely to end the Champions League qualification race for good.
“Carrick is not available, it was more heavy than we thought,” said van Gaal on Friday. “We tried everything but now we have to think about next season. He shall not play anymore this season, it’s better now to focus for him on next season and being fit to start.
“It’s clear that he’s very important but that’s also because we have only one right-sided holding midfielder. That’s what I am saying already in the whole of the season, that our selection is not balanced, and I want to restore that in the next transfer period. Life is not ending at 34, but for a professional football player, it’s close. That’s why I have to handle again in that position.”
United’s dip into the transfer market on Thursday secured the exciting Dutch forward Memphis Depay in a £25 million deal. Van Gaal’s search for Carrick’s replacement continues.
Elsewhere both Jonny Evans and Luke Shaw are available on Saturday, although the Northern Irishman’s lack of “match rhythm” means a place on the bench is more likely. Marcos Rojo is back in training, although unlikely to feature, while James Wilson has recovered from a virus that has swept the United dressing room this week.
Shaw’s return could mean a place in central midfield for Daley Blind, with Ander Herrera moving forward, although Van Persie is pushing to keep his place in the United side despite a disappointing performance against West Brom last weekend. If the Dutch striker plays, Herrera will again take up Carrick’s role, with Rooney deployed in central midfield. It is a role in which the England striker has rarely impressed this season.
Meanwhile, Palace manager Alan Pardew is without strikers Fraizer Campbell and Marouane Chamakh, although he boasts an otherwise largely fit squad. The Londoners have also lost three games on the spin since securing Premier League football next season. Still, whatever Palace’s short-term form, Pardew’s side has already beaten Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham at Selhurst Park this season. Palace also enjoyed a strong performance in a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford earlier this season, although United has not lost in south London since 1991.
With a speedy attacking trio of Wilfried Zaha, Yannick Bolasie and Jason Puncheon, Pardew’s side is well set up to soak up United’s pressure and hit the Reds on the break though. Zaha in particular is likely to relish putting one over his former side, with the youngster making just four appearances after a £15 million move north.
“His time at United was a period in his career when things didn’t work out, and that happens for players, coaches and managers,” said Pardew. “What he’s done [here] is approach it all in the right way. He’s been focused on the job.
“He’s learned you have to do certain things defensively in the Premier League without taking away from your offensive ability. He never really had an opportunity to learn that at United because he just didn’t play enough. That’s no fault of Man United’s: it’s the standards they have. He perhaps wasn’t quite ready. But he is a player we hope will grow here and will make an impact tomorrow. I’m sure he’ll be motivated to do that.”
United’s players should be motivated too after three defeats on the bounce. Not least because Van Gaal’s criticism of his team’s attitude in recent games still rings loud.
“It’s a difficult moment with three losses,” admitted goalkeeper David De Gea this week. It will be more troubling still should United add a fourth to that run.
Palace (4-2-3-1): Speroni; Ward, Dann, Delaney, Souré;McArthur, Ledley; Zaha, Puncheon, Bolasie; Murray
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Shaw; Herrera; Mata, Rooney, Fellaini, Young; Van Persie
Palace: Hennessey, Kettings, Kelly, Mariappa, Hangeland, Jedinak, Mutch, Lee, Guediora, Thomas, Boateng, Sanogo, Gayle
United: Valdes, McNair, Evans, Blackett, Januzaj, Perreira, Blind, Di Maria, Wilson, Falcao
Palace 7 – Draw 9 – United 29
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: S Bennett, M McDonough
Fourth Official: K Friend
Palace 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Wilfried Zaha to score first @ 11/1
Running total: £7.50 up!
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