Two consecutive victories for the first time this season: Erik ten Hag is engineering the U-turn Manchester United require. But to have as many wins – four – as defeats shows the work still before the manager.
The holders of the League Cup had not gone out in the third round since Swansea were beaten in September 2013. So after winning at Burnley at the weekend a loss to this much-changed Crystal Palace team would have revived the torrent of analysis aimed at Ten Hag before facing the same opposition here in Saturday’s league meeting.
This did not occur. Instead, United performed with a swagger that pleased the manager. “A good night, definitely,” said Ten Hag. “We had some good attacks, controlled possession, dominated the chances and scored a great goal.”
Of the team’s patchy early form, he said: “The mood is always good but of course when you are not winning at United there is disappointment, frustration, but the togetherness is always there. We know we are not in the position we want to be in, so we have to build up and work on the process and the results. The next game is the most important.”
From early on, the possession style Ten Hag wishes to play was in evidence as United fanned out in Palace’s half and tapped the ball about, forcing their opponents to give chase.
A Mason Mount flick to Casemiro had the Brazilian drilling a pass into space for Anthony Martial but the striker’s anticipation failed him.
Ten Hag configured his players in a nominal 4-2-3-1 that switched to 4-1-4-1 in attack – Mount becoming the extra advanced operator. The manager made seven changes from Burnley yet still had an XI that featured Sofyan Amrabat (on his full debut), Alejandro Garnacho, Mount and André Onana. Roy Hodgson’s shuffle of his Palace pack came up with eight new names. Two of the biggest – Eberechi Eze and Marc Guéhi – started on the bench in what seemed a quasi-white flag move regarding progress in the competition.
After 18 minutes the Palace debutant and United old boy, Dean Henderson, had to be replaced in goal by Sam Johnstone having sustained a muscle problem. “We don’t know how serious it is,” Hodgson said.
Johnstone’s first act was to concede. Mount dropped the ball to Facundo Pellistri and the winger rolled it inside for Diogo Dalot whose buccaneering run allowed him to spin a cross over. Garnacho slid in, finishing to Johnstone’s left.
Fast forward a minute and the newly arrived keeper was beating out a fierce Dalot shot as United looked to kill off Palace quickly. Next Pellistri, played in by Garnacho, pulled the trigger at close range and the desperate Chris Richards – via a hook of a leg – thwarted the Uruguayan.
From the resulting corner United doubled their lead. Mount swung it in from the right and Casemiro rose and headed home. By half-time United were playing with a back three at times, Casemiro reversing to become the middle defender, and Amrabat taking up his place. This, in microcosm, showed their confidence and control.
In a pre-planned move Mount was removed before the second half by Ten Hag for Victor Lindelöf, the Swede deployed as an inverted centre-back. He launched one raid that swept him deep into Palace territory, swapping passes with Martial, but the return ball from the French forward went awry.
In a snapshot of how Ten Hag will use Amrabat when possible, the Moroccan was placed alongside Casemiro in a midfield fulcrum that oozed poise and craft. United’s third goal contained each of these and starred the former Real Madrid man. From an inside-right berth, Casemiro spiralled a classic schemer’s lob to the back post for the predatory Martial to fire the ball past Johnstone with a swish of his left boot.
Tie over and the cup defence up and running for Ten Hag’s team who had earned the right to strut about their famous home.
When Hannibal Mejbri was taken off the manager threw a dazzling smile at the 20-year-old who had excelled in an advanced role. Martial received the same reception when making way for Rasmus Højlund: it was this type of night for United.