Manchester United 1 Crystal Palace 0
Louis van Gaal is a dozen competitive matches into his Manchester United reign and still experimenting.
The 63-year-old Dutchman, famed for his tactical nous, has been forced to play the role of tinkerman, sometimes due to choice, often through necessity.
His team’s most recent incarnation, against a spirited but limited Crystal Palace, yielded a first victory and, perhaps more tellingly, a first clean sheet in seven matches.
That despite, the makeshift nature of the defence. With Marcus Rojo, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Rafael on the injury list and Chris Smalling suspended, Northern Ireland U21 international Patrick McNair partnered Daley Blind, usually a midfielder, at the heart of United’s back four.
Having abandoned 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-1-2 this term, Van Gaal stuck with the 4-1-4-1 shape he believes has helped his team become more defensively sound.
“I’m looking for the balance,” Van Gaal said.
“When you see the last four matches we have had more balance because we haven’t conceded many goals. Nevertheless, we don’t score so much. With the other system we scored a lot of goals.
“We have to ensure we maintain that we are in a position where we can be in (contention for) the first four positions.
“Of course we need to raise our level. It’s a matter of time but it’s also a matter of getting over a lot of injuries.
“When you have nine injuries and also a suspended player then that is always more difficult because I cannot select a lot of players.
“I can only line up 11 players because I don’t have the players in the positions that I want to play.”
Van Gaal’s decision to introduce Juan Mata as a substitute against Palace paid off, with the Spaniard taking just four minutes to score the game’s decisive goal.
The Spaniard provided the final flourish of quality that United had lacked throughout a game in which they dominated but lacked zest.
After swapping passes with Angel Di Maria 25 yards from goal, Mata fired his shot beyond Julian Speroni — albeit with the help of a deflection.
It was Mata’s third goal of the season and the 26-year-old came close to adding to his tally in the final 10 minutes when he struck the foot of the post after Robin Van Persie’s shot was pushed away by Speroni.
Van Gaal had said before the match that it would take three years for his transformation of United to be complete.
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach insisted the estimate reflected clarity of vision, rather than pessimism.
“When I answer that I have a clear vision then you have to know that I’m (considered) arrogant,” he said. “But when you have seen what I have done in my career you have to know that I have a vision and that I’m very confident.
“I don’t think is arrogant, it is self-confidence, although not only confidence in myself but in my players, in the club, in the structure and organisation, in the staff, in my press officer.
“It’s a big challenge but that I knew in advance. Otherwise I could have chosen another club.”
At the final whistle on Saturday, there was a sense of relief around Old Trafford after United had struggled to put Neil Warnock’s stubborn visitors away.
Indeed, before half-time the Eagles had created and wasted the best chance of the game when Fraizer Campbell lifted the ball over David De Gea and the crossbar when McNair and Blind failed to deal with Joel Ward’s long ball.
It was a fourth defeat in five winless matches to leave the London club above the relegation zone only on goal difference.
“From ninth down, everyone’s in it (the relegation fight),” Warnock said. “You can’t tell me any other manager is thinking anything about anything other than getting 40 points or maybe 38.
“That’s the name of the game with such a lot of money at stake.”
MAN UTD (4-1-4-1): De Gea 6; Valencia 6, McNair 6 (Fletcher, 90), Blind 6, Shaw 7; Carrick 6; Januzaj 5 (Mata, 63, 7), Fellaini 6, Rooney 6, Di Maria 5 (Wilson, 71, 6); Van Persie 6.
CRYSTAL PALACE (4-2-3-1): Speroni 5; Mariappa 6, Dann 6, Delaney 6, Ward 7; McArthur 6, Ledley 6; Puncheon 6, Chamakh 6 (Bannan, 81), Bolasie 6 (Gayle, 81); Campbell 5 (Doyle, 90).
Referee: Chris Foy 7.
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