Manchester United’s ‘process’ is working – but major weaknesses still need to be fixed

22 May 2022. Erik ten Hag, newly unveiled as successor to Ralf Rangnick and new permanent manager of Manchester United, sat in the main stand at Selhurst Park to watch his first match for the club, and the club’s last match of the 2021-22 season.

The starting line-up since that day has featured a group of individuals whose confidence has been crippled by a series of disappointing results, a streak that continued in south London as United lost 1-0.

It capped off United’s worst season in the Premier League, in terms of points gained – the only consolation coming in the form of the debut of academy graduate Hannibal Mejbri, and Brighton’s 3-1 victory over West Ham ensuring United did not go down. To seventh place in the English Premier League table, and in the European League.

After 242 days, the age of Ten Hag was beginning to unfold. The starting eleven from Wednesday’s trip to Selhurst included just two names from the corresponding fixture in May (David de Gea and Bruno Fernandes):

United have been rejuvenated and rejuvenated in the last eight months, Palace’s squad boasts five new signings and the mentality is a far cry from the depressing sensibility of a team that ended last season on such a whimper.

However, not every issue was resolved with the team, a point United underlined by throwing two points into injury time when Michael Ulis curled in an unstoppable free-kick to claim a 1-1 draw.

Ten Hag seemed visibly angry but didn’t complain much about his team’s overall performance. Victory in the Manchester derby last weekend prompted some fans to talk about Sunday’s game against Arsenal as a possible six-pointer, but this draw at Selhurst Park was a reminder that this United side can take nothing for granted in any game. English Premier League. There are fewer on-field issues around this team than those that plague the class of 2022, but some of them linger.

One of them is advancing the ball through the two-thirds, and this is evident again in the first 20 minutes at Palace. Attempts from behind and passes into the central areas were often stopped by Palace midfielder Will Hughes, who worked to block the more obvious passes available to Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martínez. With the midfield closed, United opted to pass the ball wide through Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

It was an understandable alternative plan, made better by recent improvements from the right-back. Against his old club, Wan-Bissaka looked most comfortable with the ball in a United shirt, attempting a number of crosses to new striker Wout Weghorst’s far post. The club’s newest recruit was a bit out of sync with Bruno Fernandes in the opening minutes of the game, but as the first half developed he showed occasional glimpses of the “good feet of a big player” that make him more than a conventional goal-man.

The opening goal came from Weghorst scoring a run that caught the attention of several Palace defenders while Christian Eriksen sent in a low cross from the left back towards Fernandes. This is the United States in 2023; Cunning and sometimes sloppy in possession, but capable of scoring when needed.

Bruno Fernandes gives United the lead at Selhurst Park (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

More than £200m has been spent after May 2022 to renovate the backbone of this team; The newer faces are responsible for maintaining and adjusting the in-game pressure while the older lieutenants are tasked with making use of it.

One of these new faces is Casemiro, who once again played a vital role in stemming the flow of opposition attacks before the powerful counter-attacks kicked in. He’s often described by his manager as ‘the cement between the stones’, so it’s no wonder his 80th-minute booking for a crude challenge on Wilfried Zaha – his fifth yellow card of the season, banning him out of the trip to Arsenal – sparked so much anxiety.

He took a risk on Wednesday as no player can deliver his defensive strength, but he can’t be all over the place and be perfect in his every tackle. He wasn’t helped by his teammates when doing the recovery work he also enjoys – work he could have been kept out of.

Casemiro’s booking keeps him out of the Arsenal trip (Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Problems compounded early in injury time from Oles’s equaliser, but signs of danger were present in wide swathes of the second half as Palace channeled more attacks down United’s left, resulting in Shaw fouling Jeffrey Schlupp’s lead.

Had United survived the four extra minutes, it would have been their tenth successive victory in all competitions. The streak would have been United’s longest winning streak in 14 years since a run of 11 consecutive matches under Sir Alex Ferguson.

However, the word ‘would have been’ is not the talk of title contenders, and United’s often slow work on possession during the second half has put those who had hoped this team would be ahead of schedule back in the game. The legendary operation. The United manager also dismissed complaints about a possible penalty for a 71st-minute foul on full-time Scott McTominay.

“You have to accept the VAR decisions from the referees,” he said. “I look in the mirror, I look at my team, I look at my management and coaching and then I say invest more for the second goal and then you avoid situations where you rely on refereeing, VAR etc. That’s what we have to do.”

United dropped the points at Palace because they weren’t convincing in the way they tried to win. Ten Hag’s United have come a long way since that dreary day in May, but they are still a work in progress – a team unable to weather every storm and coming off three points on the other side.

(Top photo: Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images)

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