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Manchester United midfield selection vs Crystal Palace showed Erik ten Hag what he needs to do – Tyrone Marshall



Midfield stagnation

It felt fitting that Ralf Rangnick’s 29-game tenure at Manchester United ended with the same three-man midfield, in the same positions, that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer trusted implicitly and was often criticised for.

The McFred axis was used as a stick to beat Solskjaer with and the possibility of changes to a predictable midfield was one of the things supporters were most excited to see under the interim manager.

He has tried different combinations in there and briefly tried a 4-2-2-2 and a 4-3-3, but the fact he finished the campaign by harking back to the Solskjaer era showed how little had changed since December.

READ MORE: United player ratings vs Crystal Palace

That wasn’t the only similarity with Solskjaer’s last stand. That trio didn’t play at Vicarage Road but Bruno Fernandes did and he cost his side a goal that day in a manner that wasn’t too dissimilar to this.

He often tries the speculative crossfield pass straight from a throw and just as he did at Watford he presented the ball to the opposition at Selhurst Park. Wilfried Zaha took the present with glee.

Fernandes is clearly an excellent player but he has an impetuous and risky streak that can harm his own team. One untaken chance for Conor Gallagher summed United’s midfield up. He collected the ball in acres of space centrally, 25 yards from goal, with no opposition midfielder near him. They had all been dragged over to the right of the pitch and left a significant void.

Erik ten Hag’s top priority this summer has to be fixing United’s midfield.

Hannibal

Hannibal Mejbri might have expected his first United start to come earlier than the final day of the season after his interesting cameo at Anfield.

He won plenty of supporters for going on and kicking Liverpool’s players with United 4-0 down, but he didn’t seem to win him much favour internally and Selhurst Park was the first time he’d featured since that late outing on Merseyside.

This was another frustrating experience for Hannibal, however, and the moment when Fred and Alex Telles chastised their teenage teammate for conceding possession cheaply, leading to a counter-attack, probably summed up a mixed afternoon.

There were also moments of high-energy and one dipping shot from 20 yards that forced Vincent Guaita into a save. The 19-year-old has been played in a variety of positions for the Under-23s, including out wide, but predominantly he’s been seen as a midfielder, either deep-lying or more advanced.

The issue may be there he is something of a languid playmaker and that style is going out of fashion. It would have been interesting to see him here play as a No. 10, but Bruno Fernandes has that slot nailed down for United and if Ten Hag reverts to a 4-3-3 next season he might have to shift back a little.

Hannibal is clearly a talented player but at the moment it doesn’t feel like he has a clearly defined role in this team. He’s likely to be on United’s pre-season tour but it will be interesting to see how Ten Hag uses him and if he remains at the club or spends a season on loan, something which may allow him to find a more regular home.

Europe

For a few minutes at Selhurst Park it looked like United would have the coup de grâce applied to their season. As they went behind to Crystal Palace, West Ham were already winning not far from here. The Europa Conference League awaited.

In the end, United survived that humiliation thanks to Brighton, a team that battered them 4-0 two weeks ago. Their chances of winning the one European competition to elude them will have to wait.

It would probably have been fitting United had finished seventh, but they clung to their status as one of the big six. It’s worth remembering this season started with hopes of a title challenge, however.

The muted reaction from the away end at full-time said it all, although the players did at least go over to those supporters to thank them for their support on the road this season. The away dayers deserved that acclaim.

Cavani’s farewell

For the first time since February 8, Edinson Cavani roused himself to start a game for United, with Rangnick confirming the blatantly obvious pre-match, that the Uruguayan will leave this summer.

His season was derailed by the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo and the reality is Cavani’s heart hasn’t been it for a long time. He’s spent as long as possible in Uruguay this season and hasn’t looked to be enjoying playing second fiddle to a 37-year-old in a struggling time.

The fact fans were absent from grounds last season when Cavani was at his best for United is a shame, as is the fact he’s not been able or willing to perform for Rangnick, who needed his industry in attack to fulfil his pressing ambitions.

Murtough’s presence

There were plenty of familiar United faces in the directors’ box at Selhurst Park, including football director John Murtough and chief executive Richard Arnold.

They weren’t seated next to each other but you imagine Murtough might have sought out his boss out at full-time to ask about an increase to that transfer budget.

Arnold was caught on camera clenching his first at around the time Brighton equalised at home to West Ham. Maybe the Europa League is worth more after all.

United got lucky in securing sixth and a 12th defeat of the season summed up their problems. Murtough needs to get to work this summer.

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