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Manchester United got last season off to the perfect start. A 4-0 thrashing of Chelsea was considered a statement of intent for the campaign ahead, but by the end of 2019/20 United were above the Blues on goal difference alone. More than anything, that opening-day thrashing showed that results in week one – whether positive or negative – should not be read into too closely.
That is certainly what the optimists at Old Trafford will be emphasizing this week. United took to a Premier League field for the first time this season on Saturday and was comprehensively outthought, outfought, and outplayed by a Crystal Palace team that ended last term with seven defeats in their last eight matches. A 3-1 loss saw many fans turn on executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward for the lack of transfer activity to date, with Donny van de Beek – the scorer of United’s only goal – the solitary signing so far this summer.
The Red Devils ended last season strongly, culminating in them finishing third ahead of Chelsea and Leicester City. But they were not able to carry that momentum into Saturday’s contest, when Crystal Palace was not only quicker, sharper and stronger but also played the better football and had the more successful game plan.
Roy Hodgon’s side pressed high up the pitch in the opening exchanges, forcing a number of turnovers as United were forced into sloppy distribution errors at the back and in midfield. Andros Townsend edged the visitors ahead in the seventh minute, after which Palace sank back into a compact, well-organized 4-4-2 shape that proved difficult for United to break down.
Palace may have been fortunate to have been awarded a second-half penalty, and even more fortunate to be allowed to retake the initial miss after David de Gea was penalized for coming off his line too early, but the two-goal lead given to them by Wilfried Zaha from 12 yards was no less than they deserved. Van de Beek’s smart finish halved the deficit late on, but there would be no grandstand finish. The fourth goal of the game went the way of the south Londoners, as Zaha fired the ball into the bottom corner against his former club.
“We didn’t deserve to get anything from the game,” Solskjaer admitted to Sky Sports. “We started badly and slowly; we looked like a team early on in their preparation in pre-season.
You could see that they came flying out of the traps. You could see the difference between their prep with four friendlies and this is their third game this season whereas this is only our first game. We had one friendly last week but I think it showed. We were way short. You could see the physicality here this evening. They were sharper than us, they were stronger than us and we’ve got to catch up quickly. We can’t wait to have a normal pre-season and our next game.
The fact that Palace began their season a week earlier may well have given them the physical edge at Old Trafford, but Saturday’s defeat was an extension of the frustration United fans have been feeling for several weeks. Van de Beek is an excellent player but strengthening in attacking midfield was not exactly a priority for United this summer. There has been little progress in the search for a left-back, center-half, and center-forward, while Jadon Sancho looks set to stay at Borussia Dortmund for another year despite United seemingly retaining hope of prising him away from Signal Iduna Park.
United are unlikely to make the three or four new signings that many believe is required for the club to kick on this term. And even if they do, their decision to wait until the final weeks of the window deserves scrutiny. Chelsea, by contrast, completed the majority of their business before their first game of the season, affording the newcomers time to settle in and take on board their new manager’s instructions. United, conversely, are now playing catch-up from the get-go.
Of course, the Red Devils had more than enough quality on the pitch to overcome Palace on Saturday. Yet their performance in every area was a disappointment: the hosts were shaky at the back, overrun and uninventive in midfield, and short of a spark upfront. A major improvement will be necessary, starting with next weekend’s trip to the south coast to face Palace’s rivals, Brighton and Hove Albion.
Few believe United can mount a sustained challenge for the Premier League title this season – the 20-time English champions are +2000 with DraftKings Sportsbook to make it 21 – and that is not the remit that will have been handed down to Solskjaer. A top-four finish and Champions League qualification remains the priority, although United will be expected to at least close the gap to the top two of Liverpool and Manchester City.
That will be difficult, though, particularly if the United continues to stand still while others around them move forward. Liverpool has strengthened with the additions of Diogo Jota and, in particular, Thiago Alcantara, a world-class midfield creator who United tried to sign six years ago.
Chelsea has splashed the cash on the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Ben Chilwell, while Tottenham has brought in Matt Doherty, Sergio Reguilon, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and Gareth Bale. Arsenal has also been active and should be stronger in Mikel Arteta’s first full season at the helm, while Manchester City has moved to add depth in both attack and defense.
In comparison to their closest rivals, United have had a quiet summer. Signings are not the be-all and end-all, and there are other ways to improve a team – not least with work on the training ground. It is important not to overreact to one defeat, but Saturday’s setback against Crystal Palace suggests United will have their work cut out to get closer to the top two this season.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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