Let’s start with the good news for Manchester United: that unbeaten away record is now up to 21 games.
We will, though, be very surprised if it reaches 22 at the weekend, derby day formbook defenestration notwithstanding, against Manchester City.
This was a lifeless, drab display from United in a game that fittingly spent its second half gradually disappearing from view behind a blanket of fog, like so many tedious fading paywalled Daily Telegraph columns about the foreigns or snowflakes or bloody remoaners or cricket going to the dogs.
By the time the final whistle blew it was pretty hard to see anything, United’s wacky black-and-white away kit proving particularly effective camouflage in the conditions. We’re pretty confident we didn’t miss much.
That’s three goalless draws in a row for United now, each harder to defend than the last. The second leg against Sociedad was fine, the job having been thoroughly done the week before. Although the fact a now clearly and understandably exhausted Bruno Fernandes started that second leg looked crazy at the time and only more so now. Chelsea was a better result than performance too, preserving a gap, extending that proud away record and just slightly stalling the Blues’ new-manager bounce under Thomas Tuchel.
This, though, had absolutely nothing to recommend it. At the very simplest level, United just didn’t fancy it. Crystal Palace got what they came for, but they surely can’t believe how easy United made it. Indeed, it was Patrick van Aanholt with a late chance well saved by Dean Henderson who came closest to finding a way through the fog and general air of malaise in a soporific second half, even if replays suggested VAR would have had a long and painful peer at it through the mist had Henderson not got his leg in the way.
United managed no shot on target in the entire second half, VAR-able or otherwise. This was only a slight downgrade from the first half, when they managed one – a deflected Nemanja Matic strike that Vicente Guiata tipped behind and may actually have been creeping north of the bar in any case.
So slipshod were United in possession that Palace actually had more of the ball in the first 15 minutes of the second half, which definitely wasn’t in the plan for either side.
It really was quite something for United to come out after that first half and actually start the second half worse, but they managed it. Until Henderson’s late save the only highlight in a game that felt eerily surreal even by lockdown football standards, the rapidly descending fog somehow amplifying the absent crowd even as it shrouded and concealed the empty stands, was hearing Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford effing and jeffing at each other as United’s frustration grew.
In failing to muster a second shot on target, United have joined an exclusive club…
Manchester United join Bournemouth as the only teams to fail to have more than a single shot on target in a game against Crystal Palace in the last two years.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) March 3, 2021
It really was a performance that’s hard to fathom. Leicester only drawing at Burnley earlier in the night should have given United a lift – here was a chance to consolidate second spot and create a nice little buffer before that trip to City, despite the fact the laws of banter and everything we’ve seen of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign thus far tells us they will somehow, inexplicably, win that game at the Etihad.
But really, this was a game to target. United are approaching a potentially season-defining run of games and do so looking utterly exhausted and suddenly awfully short of confidence and ideas. Bruno Fernandes can’t do it all on his own, however much he may have given that impression over the last 14 months.
After the Manchester derby, United must negotiate a Europa League tie against Milan, the two legs sandwiching a nasty-looking Premier League assignment against West Ham with an FA Cup quarter-final against Leicester as well before the sanctuary and respite of the international break. It’s a fixture list that serves as both reminder of just how much United still have to play for this season, but also how fragile it all is. A few more afternoons and evenings like this one over the coming weeks and silverware could be off the table amid nervous looks over the shoulder in the chase for Champions League football.
And it’s not immediately obvious how Solskjaer solves this current lethargy. Rest is the obvious answer, but that won’t come. The only tiny bright spot amidst the very literal gloom at Palace was Daniel James, who having come on as a late substitute at least injected some energy and spark into proceedings, missing a presentable headed chance after a good run. It wasn’t much, but it was something. He’s quick, gifted and most importantly not entirely knackered. For good or bad, he may well have a big say over which way this United season ultimately goes. It is currently at a crossroads, and things look a touch gloomy.