EPL

De Gea hands Man United reality check as early-season optimism dies

By Sports Desk August 24, 2019

After Manchester United put four past Chelsea in their opening Premier League game of the season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was not fixating on the three points.

"We have to look behind the results. I would have said the same if we'd had a different result," he insisted. "We know it's just the start and there are relationships to be worked on. The more we understand each other and get to play with each other and show that we're a team, it's going to improve."

The United manager will doubtless look beyond the result on Saturday, when Crystal Palace produced a true smash-and-grab at Old Trafford to win there for the first time in the Premier League era. Solskjaer could argue the Red Devils were dominant, committed to attacking football, unlucky at crucial moments. They were.

But that 4-0 win over Chelsea is United's only league victory at home since April 13. In that sense, Palace's victory is no aberration; it's a pattern to home games that Solskjaer seems unable to address.

The statistics tell you this was a match United should never have lost. They had 22 shots to Palace's five, 71 per cent of the possession, and a second missed penalty in as many games. The visitors scored with two of their three efforts on target, the first a simple finish for Andrew Ayew, the injury-time winner yet another moment to forget for David de Gea in 2019 as Patrick van Aanholt's strike found its way through the Spain goalkeeper.

United can also point to some bad luck, and two questionable decisions from referee Paul Tierney. Debutant Gary Cahill was fortunate not to be sent off for stopping Anthony Martial's clear route to goal, and Martin Kelly's manhandling of the forward as he drove into the penalty area in the second half went strangely unpunished.

They will also likely highlight how Palace contrived to score with their first shot at the end of their first foray into the United box, all from goalkeeper Vicente Guaita's clearance. But that was a goal of United's own making.

Victor Lindelof will probably bear most of the criticism for failing to win the header against Jeffrey Schlupp that sent Ayew through, but there should be a serious inquest into how the goalscorer was able to wander past Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay in midfield and not be tracked by £80million man Harry Maguire.

Then there was the penalty, Luka Milivojevic rightly punished for tripping McTominay only for the frustrating Marcus Rashford's effort to clatter the inside of the left-hand post, cross the six-yard box and go out for a goal kick. At least there had been no argument about the taker this time.

Even after Daniel James scored a fine equaliser, United still found a way to ruin their day in the Salford sun. With too many tired players committed forward, Wilfried Zaha broke through, the ball fell to Van Aanholt, and De Gea was beaten at the near post after an hour of having nothing to do.

Solskjaer will feel aggrieved about losing a match where his side had such dominance and where fortune simply wasn't in their favour, but no amount of bad luck should excuse a first home defeat to Palace in 30 years, especially a Palace team that have already lost to Sheffield United and failed to score against Everton.

Instead, the manager should consider whether his vaunted backing of a young and - against Palace, too often naive - attack might hold him back in his first full season in charge. Would it really be so terrible to give Alexis Sanchez, a player apparently being encouraged to leave on loan to Inter, another chance in the squad? Would restoring Fred and Nemanja Matic to the first-team picture at least give Solskjaer more options to change difficult situations for the better?

This is not quite the time for panic at United. Four points from Chelsea at home and Wolves away was a solid start, even if this was an appalling way to come back down to earth, and not even the most optimistic of fans have ever really considered them title challengers to Manchester City and Liverpool anyway.

But Solskjaer would do well to look very closely at this 2-1 scoreline, at how his team contrived to hand victory to their opponents as they chased a winner themselves, and give very serious thought to how he can stop it happening again.

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