Palace rout has Man United plumbing new Premier League depths

  • Tom Hamilton, senior writerMay 6, 2024, 6:42 p.m. ET

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      • Joined ESPN in 2011
      • Coverage of two Olympic Games, two Rugby World Cups and two British and Irish Lions tours
      • Previously a rugby editor, he became senior writer in 2018

LONDON – The worst season Manchester United has ever had in the Premier League is just around the corner. And Crystal Palace helped them head down that dismal path when they swept aside Erik ten Hag's side with a completely dominant 4-0 win at Selhurst Park on Monday.

The hosts took advantage of their injury-plagued opponents, dismantling their new combinations and at times playing with them like a cat with a piece of string. They comfortably defeated the beleaguered Ten Hag side thanks to a display of wonderful attacking ruthlessness led by their brilliant trio in front of Michael Olise, Eberechi Eze and Jean-Philippe Mateta.

Ten Hag has struggled with an ever-growing injury list at United this season and has added Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay to his missing contingent ahead of this trip to south London. Their absences meant Casemiro and Jonny Evans became the 14th different centre-back combination Ten Hag fielded this season as he looked to fill the gaps.

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But Evans and Casemiro looked lost, no match for the movement and genius of their confident, creative opponents. Olise finished with two – Palace's first and fourth – and could have had more. Mateta scored a brilliant goal in the first half and Tyrick Mitchell scored another goal in the second half.

From Manchester United's perspective, the autopsy will be brutal. If you ever watch referee Jarred Gillet's Ref-Cam footage, it would be a nice alternative to The Blair Witch Project. It's difficult to pinpoint one area where they fell apart – it was a wholesale capitulation. And few struggled more than the hugely experienced Casemiro, who had a terrible game. He was completely out of control for Palace's opening goal through Olise and then was caught on the ball for the second and fourth goals.

But his problems simply fit into what felt like a moment: an embarrassment that could hasten action by United's new minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe at the end of the season. This was certainly the nadir of a poor election campaign. There has long been uncertainty over Ten Hag's future at the club – there is no support from new bosses any time soon – and while United still have an FA Cup final to look forward to, this was a brutal reality check.

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It was United's 13th defeat in the Premier League this season and set a new unwanted club record, surpassing the 12 defeats they suffered in the 2013-14 and 2021-22 seasons. And after a weekend in which both Newcastle United and Chelsea won convincingly, this defeat leaves them in eighth place – which would be their worst result in the Premier League era. On the other hand, this victory was the first time that Palace achieved the league double against Manchester United, having won 1-0 in the second leg in September. The Eagles are flying high.

“This was the fourth defeat in 2024 so far,” said Ten Hag after the game. “You always saw a team following a script. We had a lot of wins and were hard to beat, and today we weren’t hard to beat.”

“It's very disappointing, the worst defeat, they should have done better. It wasn't correct, they made big mistakes, we didn't stick to the plan and the script and the plays that we had. We can make mistakes, but we didn't cover for each other and it was a bad defeat.

But what's worrying for United? This defeat could and should have been more serious. Olise scored a brilliant 12th-minute opener when he danced past a reckless Casemiro, ran into the heart of the United defense and then finished brilliantly past André Onana.

Palace added a wonderful second goal in the 40th minute when United managed to get tangled up in midfield and lost the ball through Casemiro.

Manchester United captain Casemiro capped a poor performance in midfield as the Red Devils lost 4-0 to Crystal Palace. (Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)

This left United in distress and all it took to unlock the defense was a lovely pass from Chris Richards to Mateta, who fired comfortably past Evans and hammered it past a stuck Onana. Palace had further chances in the first half, with Olise perhaps having the best in the 27th minute when he pounced on a faltering Kobbie Mainoo and made a clean run towards goal, only to have the ball caught by an outstretched Onana.

United were eliminated early in the second half and appeared confused as they watched first-half highlights on the stadium's television screen as they waited for Palace. Maybe Ten Hag's team talk at halftime would lead to a fight. But any hope of a revival in the second half was quickly dashed. Palace continued to push, with Eze firing wide after a wonderful one-two with Olise, but they got their just reward with a third goal when Joachim Andersen beat Diogo Dalot and gave Mitchell the chance to score her third.

And then came Olise's second and Palace's fourth. Casemiro was at fault – once again – when he was caught on the cross by Daniel Muñoz. His inside ball hit Olise, who took a few touches and then shot past Onana. Palace almost scored their fifth goal when Odsonne Édouard hit Onana's right-hand post with a brilliant shot in stoppage time. The old ground was shaking – fans watched with squinty eyes as Palace secured a fourth of five wins under coach Oliver Glasner, who sparked this renaissance when he took charge in February.

Palace made just one change from the last runout, while United's two changes saw Mason Mount start a league game for the first time since October. They only had one over-21 outfield player on the bench (Sofyan Amrabat), compared to the experience Palace had among their substitutes, which included Marc Guehi and other club greats such as Jordan Ayew and Jeffrey Schlupp.

United had the ball in the net twice. In the first half, an attempt by Casemiro was blocked (perhaps harshly) as Rasmus Højlund had allegedly fouled goalkeeper Dean Henderson while attempting to block a header from the Brazilian. The attempt was ruled offside. But their eventual return of just two shots on goal showed their wastefulness. And although both Casemiro and Evans were at the heart of United's defense, it proved completely pointless. They lacked resistance and form, the balance was completely wrong and players rushed from the wrong position. And from then on, their foundations collapsed, finding neither coherence nor understanding.

There is an atmosphere of excitement and optimism here for Palace. This team played brilliantly – the midfield duo of Adam Wharton and Will Hughes controlled the game and the fact that Glasner brought in an additional striker, Édouard, in the second half to be even more attacking, even though they were already three goals ahead at that point, showed their intentions (and their bloodlust). They are moving in an exciting direction, but will have to compete against many admirers of their wonderful talents this summer.

But for United, they need to recover from the canvas ahead of the knockout rounds and find a way to get themselves back into the game to secure a European place. They face Arsenal and Newcastle at Old Trafford and Brighton & Hove Albion away on the final day, but unless they get some of the injured back and regain some form and confidence, they risk the shame of being their worst team in the Premier League season, and with that the pressure on Ten Hag will only increase.

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