As Manchester United prepare to face Crystal Palace they do so without Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who has arguably been their key player over the past fortnight.
Mkhitaryan was injured during the closing stages of his team’s 1-0 Premier League win over Tottenham Hotspur, the second consecutive game in which he had scored the lone goal of the match. His absence at Selhurst Park has only one possible benefit, and that is the probable return of Juan Mata to the starting lineup.
Alongside Paul Pogba, Mata is his team’s most reliable provider of chances and is more than capable of scoring a goal of his own. His recent omission is through no fault of his own, and instead speaks to the lack of balance in United’s attack. The presence up front of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a strong but not particularly quick target man, has obliged Jose Mourinho to play pacy forwards around him who can make runs beyond the Swede as he holds the ball up. This has generally been bad news for Mata, who is far from the quickest himself. The other issue is that with Pogba also regularly pushing into the final third, that part of the field can become a little congested when United are attacking. This is why Mata has often found himself in the inside-right position as opposed to a role at No. 10.
However, this conundrum is not United’s main concern against Palace. Their primary problem is the left flank, where Matteo Darmian was sadly abject against Tottenham. He offered very little going forward, and in defence he too often drifted infield, leaving Pogba and Marcos Rojo to deal with the threat from the wing. Darmian’s failure to overlap also meant that Anthony Martial received the ball too close to the touchline, and though this isolation did not excuse Martial’s own sub-par performance, it certainly did not help it.
In this context, Mourinho’s decision not to use Daley Blind in the left-back role was a little surprising. Though Blind is far slower than Luke Shaw, who has recently been absent through injury, he covers a notable amount of ground and is an excellent deep-lying playmaker. His passing and dead-ball delivery make him a much greater creative threat than Darmian, and it would be to United’s benefit if he could be involved instead against Palace.
Palace, meanwhile, can claim to be the most confusing team in the league. After 15 games, they have the division’s fourth-worst defensive record with 29 goals conceded, and are its fifth-highest scorers with 27 goals, behind only Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. Few might have predicted that at the start of the season, especially given their sale of Yannick Bolasie to Everton this summer.
Their form is also something of a mystery. They have lost six of their last eight league games, but during that period they have also managed to overwhelm Southampton, who have the second-best defensive record in the Premier League, by three goals to nil.
That Southampton result can partly be explained by the defeated team’s fatigue from European competition, but credit must also be given to Christian Benteke, who has immediately been prolific in his first season at Palace. Benteke, who has eight goals in 13 league games, leads an attack that has scored the most headed goals (nine) in the division this season. Benteke’s contest against Phil Jones, so resilient against Tottenham, will therefore be a fascinating one. The Palace striker has been aided in his efforts by Wilfried Zaha, who has recently been a regular provider of both goals and assists. Zaha may feel that he has a particular point to prove against his former club; if so, he is most likely to target Darmian as opposed to Antonio Valencia, who is his match for speed and who is superior to him in strength.
Yet United’s defence has been far sturdier since that 4-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, having conceded only four times in their last six league games, and so they can step out with some confidence at Selhurst Park. To win, they will need to move the ball as quickly through the final third as they have done when Mkhitaryan is present, so either Martial, Marcus Rashford or Wayne Rooney will have crucial roles to play in his absence.
The goals have not yet begun to flow for Mourinho’s team, which is why the encounter against Palace looks as if it could be yet another unfulfilling one. If that is not to be the case, then Mata, as he has done so often this season, must pull it all together once more.