The Eagles surprised many at the weekend by taking a point from United but perhaps should have had more. Here are the five things we learnt from the game.
1. The fact that Palace left Old Trafford perhaps disappointed not to have claimed all three points is indicative of how well the away side played. Regardless of United’s on-going travails, this was a team of star-studded talent that Palace were up against, at a stadium where they’ve regularly struggled in recent years, but the Eagles refused to blink under the Old Trafford lights. It wasn’t quite enough to prevent the South Londoners going an eighth game without a win, but it did at least feel like a step in the right direction, and served as a reminder that Roy Hodgson does still have the guile to turn a poor start to the season around.
2. It never ceases to amaze how slow some people can be to give Wayne Hennessey credit. Despite the arrival of Vicente Guaita, the Welshman rightly started this season as Palace’s number one given the way the team ended the last campaign. Since then, the 31-year-old has given Hodgson no reason to drop him, so why should he? It’s perfectly fine to acknowledge that Hennessey hasn’t been good enough for the past two seasons, but it’s equally acceptable to note that his reactions are improved, he’s more commanding of his penalty area, and is benefiting from playing behind a stable back four – the two opinions don’t have to exist in isolation of one another. His two saves against United – to deny Jesse Lingard in the first half and Romelu Lukaku in the second – might have been ones you’d hope your keeper would make, but they were point-preserving stops that came at crucial times in the game. Hodgson has no motive to drop Hennessey and nor should he feel inclined to – if ever there was a time to scrutinise your keeper’s place in the team, on the back of a clean sheet at United isn’t it.
3. Max Meyer finally looked like the player we thought we’d signed in the summer. I said after the Tottenham game that Hodgson needed to find a way to get the German picking up the ball in central areas, and while he still started Saturday’s game out on the left, he drifted towards the middle of the pitch every time Palace broke forward, allowing Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend to peel wide and stretch United’s defence. As a result, Meyer had far more influence on the game, and even lifted some of the attacking burden on the likes of Zaha by drawing in defenders and creating space for his teammates to run into. There’s still plenty to come from the 23-year-old, but Saturday suggested that he is starting to find his feet in the team.
4. It really shouldn’t be underestimated just how important Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins are to this team. Given Palace’s inability to score at the moment, there’s been added pressure on the back four to keep clean sheets at a time when the rest of the squad is low on confidence. Hennessey might have been forced into a couple of good saves against United, but aside from those isolated incidents he was protected by a centre back pairing who gobbled up everything the home side launched their way. At this stage, keeping those two fit has arguably become equally as important as preserving Zaha’s health.
5. Here ends a treacherous run of fixtures against four of last season’s top six, and Palace can feel a little aggrieved to only emerge from it with two points to their name. But for a tad more ruthlessness in front of goal, the Eagles could rightly claim that one or two of those draws should have been wins, and perhaps one of those defeats might have been a draw. Now, however, begins a far more crucial four-game spell against sides in and around us in the league table. Hodgson will know full well that the time has come to translate performances into a minimum of two wins – and there will be an expectation for that to begin against Burnley on Saturday.