From an admittedly small sample size of only three tour matches, Erik ten Hag appears to be improving Manchester United. Each of the goals scored in their 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace on Tuesday, by Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, was a function of slick and cute play that crowned United’s most impressive performance of their pre-season tour of the far east and Australia, following the wins over Liverpool (4-0) and Melbourne Victory (4-1).
“We are happy with the improvement we see – we score some wonderful goals,” said Ten Hag. “That is also the demand [press high]. We press all day, high on the pitch and if we can’t we do it on a low block. [We can still improve] the timing, when we start it, and also our quality on the ball. We play well, but you see when two, three-nil up the belief is increasing.”
For Harry Maguire, this was something of a mixed affair. He faced Palace having been backed emphatically by Ten Hag as captain and a “first-choice” player but then had to endure boos from those in attendance early on. They were eventually quietened via an impressive display by the England defender, prior to him being replaced in the second half.
Donny van de Beek, who helped create Rashford’s goal, defended Maguire. “I heard as well [jeering],” he said. “I didn’t know really what happened. But Harry was playing well – he was aggressive, he got so many balls, so that means he has a big personality.”
Maguire made more than one potential goal-preventing intervention and unloaded long-range deliveries that had his manager at one point calling his name and displaying a thumbs up. The 29-year-old personified the quality on show in white. United were a whirring menace until they faltered towards the end when David de Gea weakly allowed Joel Ward’s header from a Palace corner to go in at his near post.
Patrick Vieira’s side had lost Jack Butland early on when in turning away from Martial, the goalkeeper saved the resulting effort ‘blind’, in the process injuring his right hand. He had to be replaced by Remi Matthews.
At this juncture a shot from Jean-Philippe Mateta had been Palace’s lone foray and came in-between the jeers of Maguire. These soon turned into gasps of admiration for an excellent United move that created the opening goal. Tyrell Malacia, in for Luke Shaw, switched play from the left to Diogo Dalot with a velvety pass via his supposedly weaker right foot. The Portuguese’s instant touch engineered space, the ball into Martial as decisive as the Frenchman’s chest-and-volley which gave Matthews no chance and the striker a goal in every game on this tour.
Palace were stunned but still went close to an equaliser seconds later. Malcolm Ebiowei twisted past Fred from the right side and let fly, forcing De Gea to dive left in order to make the save.
For long passages United offered fluidity and cleverness. Rashford embodied this in two moments. The first was a swerve inside and attempt at goal that reduced Matthews to a watching bystander. The second was a menacing cross from the left that bisected Palace’s rearguard and should have provided a second goal for Martial before half-time.
This was Palace’s first ever game in Australia – their 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at the weekend was played in Singapore – and Vieira described his preparations for the game as “not ideal” given he only had 10 senior players with him here due to a combination of injuries and players not meeting entry requirements. Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze, Marc Guéhi and Michael Olise were among the absentees.
Ten Hag made one change for the second half – Van de Beek for Scott McTominay. It worked a treat as United fashioned a second goal. The excellent Martial pulled a high Bruno Fernandes ball down with aplomb and fed Sancho. On went the Frenchman who received the ball back in the area and laid it off to Van de Beek who in turn squared it squared smartly for Rashford to score his second goal of the tour.
United’s third goal derived from a bright sequence. Rashford stepped forward and found Martial whose ball to Sancho released the winger into space. His subsequent finish was cool and clinical. After De Gea was beaten by Ward, Will Fish, United’s second-half replacement for Maguire, clumsily felled Victor Akinwale and, as last man, was sent off.
It was an unfortunate moment for Fish who had flown out to Australia ahead of the win over Melbourne Victory as a replacement for Axel Tuanzebe. But ultimately, the 19-year-old’s dismissal was merely a footnote to another 90 minutes of progress for United under Ten Hag.