Manchester United’s worst season in 30 years of the Premier League ended with a typical whimper. Objective achieved, an undesirable new frontier of the Europa Conference League avoided though little thanks to United, West Ham’s defeat against Brighton sneaking them into the Europa League despite Wilfried Zaha’s first-half goal delivering a sixth successive away defeat.
After concluding the season with a goal difference of zero and some excruciatingly poor performances, the showing here a case in point, playing any form of European football next season feels a wholly undeserved bonus. The Glazer family owe Brighton and Graham Potter a debt of gratitude of which their own billion ‑ pound team were not worthy.
The darkest hour is before the new dawn? In the stands sat Erik ten Hag, clad in a summer jacket alongside the United football director, John Murtough and Steve McClaren, returning as the Dutchman’s assistant. The incoming manager had abandoned a post-season Caribbean jolly with Ajax to catch his new charges in action.
Meanwhile, Patrick Vieira, whose exciting Crystal Palace team have exceeded many expectations, appearing unruffled by his Goodison Park dustup, was hailed by home fans after a season of progress. “There’s a really strong relationship between you and the players,” Vieira told Palace fans in a post-match address that followed a first home Premier League win over United. “We have had success at home because of the support you give.”
For United, Edinson Cavani played out his last match while Hannibal Mejbri, the teenage Tunisian who was perhaps his best best outfield player, is a potential face of United’s future. Doubts circle most of his teammates. Cristiano Ronaldo had not traveled to south London, and the given explanation of a recurring hip problem did little to quell discussion over his future.
“The ones who want to stay, stay at the club,” David de Gea said. “The ones that do not want to stay go out. You do not have to stay here. The new manager and staff are already looking for new players. Hopefully, they bring good ones with good character. ”
Conor Gallagher’s name was sung to the rafters of the Holmesdale End. He returns to Chelsea an England international, his reputation enhanced by being the driving force of Vieira’s team and he excelled again. Meanwhile, Bruno Fernandes’s tricks and flicks were failing him, and he took out his frustrations on his teammates from the early stages, an outward display of the lack of team spirit that has been an open secret all season, that Ralf Rangnick, the outgoing interim manager, had confirmed before the game. Fernandes glowered at Anthony Elanga when the winger outpaced the Palace defense before squaring the ball beyond his sliding teammate.
“We would have loved to take care of ourselves,” Rangnick said. “The game was indicative of the last couple of weeks.”
United’s fans sang throughout despite the deathly pallor of their team but they were quietened by Zaha barrelling into the inside-left channel, past Diogo Dalot and Victor Lindelöf, to score against his former club. As Zaha celebrated, Ten Hag, doubtless aware the TV cameras were on him, was stone-faced though at half-time was happy enough to pose for selfies with Palace fans. “This has been one of our problems,” Rangnick said. “The way we defended, we are not aggressive enough, you need to make body contact.”
Sent out early for the second half by Rangnick, who powered down the touchline with the face of a man looking forward to all this being someone else’s problem, United stepped up their efforts a tad. Mejbri forced a save from Vicente Guaita on the hour, seconds before being withdrawn, reluctantly, for Juan Mata, making his final bow for United, his eight-year stint encapsulating the waste of talent and cash that has surrounded him. “It’s important we build a team that deserves the name ‘team’,” said Rangnick, revealing Ten Hag is yet to be introduced to United’s players, and had not made a post-match appearance in the away dressing room. “I hope we can speak in the next few days.” Shola Shoretire, an 18-year-old replacing Fred with 15 minutes to play, gave the new boss sight of another young gun and Alejandro Garnacho, 17, joined the effort five minutes later. Fresh legs did little to energize United, Scott McTominay firing over late on to jeers from the home fans. Ten Hag can have seen little to convince himself his new job will be easy.