Manchester United were set to play their first Premier League game of the season when they took on Crystal Palace at Old Trafford. Despite some negativity about transfers, United were optimistic about the new seasons, with the intention of putting pressure on Liverpool and Manchester City for the top two. Crystal Palace started their season in excellent fashion, grabbing a 1-0 victory at home to Southampton and were looking to build on this. Palace fans were looking for a push up the table as opposed to being happy with survival considering the quality of players they possess. Manchester United needed to win, as a good win would ease the tension that had been created over the summer. Donny van de Beek was a solid signing, however, they clearly need a couple of reinforcements and to also get rid of certain players. The likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have done so and its time for United to get their act together and do this. Non the less, an interesting game was on the cards.

Crystal Palace ended up winning the game 3-1, in what was an excellent performance by them and an absolutely shocking performance by Manchester United. They lacked desire, match fitness and the ability to defend which Palace pounced on brilliantly. The win means Palace have won two games out of two and are looking good. As for United, Van de Beek scoring was perhaps the only positive in what was a disaster of a performance. They were not able to get any rhythm to their game and the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba as well as the likes of Marcus Rashford were really poor and the defending was a joke. Their next game sees them go to Luton Town in midweek before travelling to Brighton on Saturday lunchtime. Palace host Everton.

This tactical analysis will look at how Manchester United were so poor in terms of their tactics and the analysis will also focus on how Crystal Palace were able to pounce on this.


As for Manchester United, they lined up in a 4-2-3-1. David De Gea started between the sticks. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf were the two centre-backs. They would be looking for a clean sheet. Timothy Fosu-Mensah played at right back with Luke Shaw on the left.  Scott McTominay sat next to Paul Pogba to make up United’s two defensive midfielders. McTominay would sit back and allow Pogba to flourish in attacking areas. Bruno Fernandes continued at central attacking midfield and was looking to maintain his blistering form. Marcus Rashford and Daniel James made up the wider positions. Anthony Martial started as the central striker.

Crystal Palace lined up in a flat 4-4-2 formation. Vicente Guaita started between the sticks. Joel Ward and Tyrick Mitchell were the full-backs. Stopping United’s attacking threat would be some challenge, especially in wider areas. Mamadou Sakho and Cheikhou Kouyaté were the centre-backs, who also had the responsibility of stopping United’s attacking players. James McCarthy and James McArthur were the two central midfielders who needed to get a control of the game to have any chance of winning. Andros Townsend and Jeffery Schlupp were the wider players, who had the responsibility to get foward. Jordan Ayew and Wilfred Zaha were the two central strikers. They were both a threat and would look to hurt the United defence when possible.

Premier League 2020/21: Manchester United Vs Crystal Palace – tactical analysis – tactics
The Lineups of both teams.

United’s poor defending

The biggest problem that United had in this game was that they could not defend against Palace’s counter-attack and they suffered a lot in defensive transitions. All three of the goals that they conceded came from poor defending which resulted in Palace being able to break. Maguire and Lindelöf were very poor and did not give United any defensive foundation. Their lack of pace caught up with them and the likes of Zaha ran past them with ease. United may need to go into the transfer market for a centre-back as this combination could prove to cause them problems further down the line. Gary Neville said on the commentary that United need to forget about pursuing the likes of Jadon Sancho and focus on bringing in defensive reinforcements that will push them higher up the table. Even Shaw was poor in a defensive sense and the absence of Aaron Wan-Bissaka was apparent on the right side of the pitch. His defensive presence in a game like this would have helped significantly.

Below is an example of the first goal scored by Palace. We can see Lindelöf, Maguire and Shaw all in bad positions which allows Townsend to tap in from the cross. It is clear to see from Lindelöf’s position that a centre-back with pace and aggression in that situation would have been able to deal with the cross coming in. Shaw’s positioning at the back post is also awful and it costs United a goal.

Premier League 2020/21: Manchester United Vs Crystal Palace – tactical analysis – tactics
An example of United struggling to defend.

The problem that United now have is teams will look at this performance and will see that United are weak when defending counter-attacks. Palace yesterday were deadly when they moved forward with the ball and United could not deal with them. Pace Is sometimes overrated when it comes to a centre-back, however, both Lindelöf and Maguire both lack pace so it may be beneficial to put someone else in there who has pace and can deal with quick players like Zaha and Ayew. The top teams that have quick forwards such as Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will cause United problems at the back if they are unable to find this solution. Of course, United was attacking throughout the majority of the game, however, there was no defensive responsibility which allowed Palace to break through their defensive line.

Below is another example of Palace on the break. We can see the Palace players moving forward on the break with United being unable to cope with it. The lack of a defensive structure was a real problem and Lindelöf and Maguire were unable to deal with the pace that Palace possessed. Moving forward, this is a problem they must possess.

Premier League 2020/21: Manchester United Vs Crystal Palace – tactical analysis – tactics
Another example of United struggling to defend the counter-attack.

Palace’s excellent defensive structure

A lot of the attention of the game was on Manchester United and their problems, however, we do also need to focus on how Crystal Palace managed to keep United out and managed to implement their game plan of being defensively sound. It is important to realise that the Palace often play this way in the big games and have an excellent record against the bigger sides, especially away from home. The 4-4-2 defensive structure that they had in place allowed them to deny United spaces in key areas and deny the likes of Fernandes and Pogba space and opportunity to create chances. The likes of Rashford, Martial, James and Greenwood were all unable to create and run in behind which was a huge problem for them and huge credit must be given to Palace in stopping this happening. They were rigid, compact and excellent in defending the through balls through midfield. This was an excellent defensive play which resulted in them only conceding one goal.

Below is an example of this. We can see them in an excellent defensive structure which does not allow any space for United to play with. We need to give credit to Palace in this sense, as this sort of defensive work takes time and perfection.

Premier League 2020/21: Manchester United Vs Crystal Palace – tactical analysis – tactics
An example of Palace’s excellent defensive structure.

As mentioned, United was extremely poor when they had the ball in midfield, however, it was Palace denying them the key spaces. They were the textbook definition of a low-block which was very much what was required in this game. Palace does play like this often, however, when they go away in the bigger games it is clear to see that this trend is beneficial in many ways. It is unlikely that they will move away from this and nor should they have given their record against the bigger teams. They have always been an awkward team to play against for the bigger sides in the league, which has included them beating of all the top six sides at least once. Yesterday, their DNA was no different which is telling through the result.

Below is another example of this. We can see the Palace players in an excellent shape which allows them to block off the spaces. United couldn’t play through this and Palace were able to break when they got the ball back. The Palace team are filled with soldiers in this regard as they are all willing to push the block low and make it difficult for opposition teams.

Premier League 2020/21: Manchester United Vs Crystal Palace – tactical analysis – tactics
Another example of Palace being solid in their shape.

United’s lack of attacking balance

When looking at why United struggled to break down Palace in this game, it is clear to see they had a major in balance on the flanks. The majority of Manchester United’s attacking players were moving to the left side, meaning no one was stretching the play from the right side. This meant that the threat was only coming from the left, which means Palace could not only stop United from the left and be comfortable but attack from the left side which United had left open. Even Daniel James, who is traditionally a player who likes to stay wide was coming to the inside. This once again voices a need for a proper right-sided winger such as Jadon Sancho to come into the club to provide this balance. Wan-Bissaka was missing, who is the natural right-back was also needed to provide stability on the right, as opposed to Fosu-Mensah who has not been a consistent player in the team. The right side, including right centre-back, needs improving. The left side, Rashford, Pogba, Shaw is good and is well balanced. However, the right side needs improving as seen in this match.

Below is an example of this. We can see the huge gap on the right side of the pitch. This is the space that should be filled by the right-sided winger or the right back, but we can see them extremely narrow and not providing any width on the right which would be a way to break down the low-block.

 Premier League 2020/21: Manchester United Vs Crystal Palace – tactical analysis – tactics
An example of United lacking width on the right-side and not having a huge amount of width on the right-side of the pitch.

When Mason Greenwood came on the pitch, he made a good impact on the game. Instead of James who was being dealt with by the Palace defence he caused them huge problems and provided a level of technical ability that James could not provide. James is not a bad player and has a lot of potential, however, at the moment he Is struggling and needs to find form fast. United need a right winger badly and it has been seen clearly through this game. They also need to find different solutions for different problems. Van de Beek did excellent when he came on and provided a real attacking threat. This shows that the manager has to be backed, as the signings he has made have all seemed to make an impact. The balance issue that is seen on the right side is one that does need addressing fast if United are to have a success. All the top teams have this balance on both sides and United need to find this when they play.

Below is yet another example of this. We can once again see this huge lack of balance on the right side which has been left due to James and Fosu-Mensah being positioned more centrally which meant there was no width for them to work from. It also presented a lack of options for the cut back when the ball was situated on the left-side. This is something the top teams can do with the quality they possess. United need to add this quality and the likes of Jadon Sancho would add this quality.

Premier League 2020/21: Manchester United Vs Crystal Palace – tactical analysis – tactics
Another example of this in balance.


To conclude, it was a poor performance by Manchester United who were well beaten and didn’t deserve anything from the game. They need to make a couple of additions and wake up as a team or else they are going to fall well behind the quality required. Palace will be buzzing with such a victory.