When the going got tough Manchester United stopped going for it. They had to win all three consecutive away fixtures if they were to make a fist of it in the Premier League and they have lost their nerve again.
Everyone remembers their 21st and United have gone 21 league away games unbeaten. City have gatecrashed that with 21 consecutive wins and United’s away record will be in severe jeopardy at the Etihad on Sunday.
That will be a meeting of champions-elect and also-rans. No sooner had United planted their flag at the Premier League summit that it toppled over: their record reads two wins, five draws and one defeat since they were top at the halfway stage in late January. City, the latest to spear their colours to the ground, will also be the last this season.
As Ed Woodward edged forward in his seat at Selhurst Park so United became edgier amid their profligacy, with Marcus Rashford guilty again. The goalless games with Real Sociedad and Chelsea were set against a backdrop of conjecture over Erling Haaland’s future and with each week there is additional evidence for United’s dossier to have a second bite of the cherry, despite last season’s rejection.
United served up some Louis van Gaal nostalgia at Selhurst with their third consecutive goalless draw, just as they did on the same ground in October 2015. Dean Henderson, tallying enough clean sheets to open a laundrette, preserved it with an imperious late denial of Patrick van Aanholt with David de Gea away for personal reasons.
The United away-dayers mutinously chanted ‘attack, attack, attack’ at Van Gaal in his last season and though that was not lacking from this United there was an air of inevitability they would be held to another stalemate as early as the first-half.
It is surreal to think that, prior to City’s denuding of Wolves on Tuesday night, United were the league’s highest scorers. Little wonder they felt so aggrieved at not receiving a penalty at Chelsea and their sole specialist striker – Cavani – was hooked in the 78th minute.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer set the tone with the risk-aversive midfield axis of Fred and Nemanja Matic, although ironically those two underpinned United’s most threatening period of play in the first-half. Palace prevented Bruno Fernandes from playing and if the opposition neuters Fernandes they neuter United.
United’s collapse of form did not coincide with Paul Pogba’s thigh injury but they are getting worse without him and Fernandes, dogged enough to still track back inside his own third in the dying embers, appears burdened without someone else to pick up the baton he has dropped.
The fatigued Fernandes chastised Mason Greenwood, not hesitant in giving some back, in the first-half, sure signs United’s goalscoring issue is manifesting into a problem as they ticked past the four-hour mark without scoring. The half-time shrill signalled a season-high for the absent Anthony Martial’s stock and it is now four hours and 45 minutes since United last scored – and that was a Fernandes spotkick.
All Solskjaer had to turn to was the callow Amad, the even younger Shola Shoretire, Daniel James and Scott McTominay. McTominay has as many goals as Martial and Edinson Cavani this term and, not long ago, was considered a defensive midfielder. McTominay was summoned first and United’s final substitution was unused.
Donny van de Beek – ostensibly the star signing of United’s summer – has only appeared in 13 of United’s 27 Premier League fixtures and comparisons with Henrikh Mkhitaryan are unfair – on Mkhitaryan. Van de Beek has become such an afterthought Solskjaer seemed to forget he was an unused substitute at Chelsea on Sunday when he dubbed the Dutchman a ‘doubt’ to figure at Palace. Van de Beek was not in attendance.
Woodward and United’s transfer negotiator Matt Judge were present for United’s fourth game in the capital this calendar year for some escapism ahead of Thursday night’s financial results. There were not 10 minutes on the clock when Woodward smacked the vacant seat in front of him in exasperation at United’s errant distribution.
The mist had barely lifted all day and United’s vision seemed impaired at both ends and Rashford caused Woodward to put his hands on his head with another run down a blind alley. Greenwood erred similarly and regularly.
Solskjaer was more sanguine and marvelled at Ray Lewington’s drill sergeant shrill, and United’s first composed spell elicited two opportunities, with Cavani’s snap-shot a glaring opportunity missed. Cavani could, or should, easily have double the seven goals he has already tallied for United.
The football did little to get the adrenaline flowing and Woodward and his Palace counterpart Steve Parish were late out for the second-half. Woodward smacked his hands in exasperation, almost out of solidarity with the narked Fernandes, looking as weary with the relentless schedule as most.
It’s been tough going.