Manchester United lost ground in the race for the Barclays Premier League title with a 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace that could easily have ended in defeat.
Against their improving opponents, United again struggled to convince with a predictable, sluggish display that leaves them at risk of falling outside of the division's top four.
The starting line-ups of each team suggested that this fixture's outcome would be decided by whether Palace's pace, via Jason Puncheon, Dwight Gayle, Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha, or the intelligence and composure of the visiting Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind and Wayne Rooney would prevail.
In the game's opening stages, it was unquestionably Palace who provided the greater threat. Gayle forced a reasonable, second-minute save from David de Gea when shooting from close range after Matteo Darmian had clumsily conceded possession, and soon after the goalkeeper reacted even more impressively when tipping Bolasie's powerful, goal-bound shot from the right on to the bar.
Within a minute those present witnessed another fine save from De Gea, this time when Scott Dann's header from Yohan Cabaye's corner was tipped over, though thereafter the expensively assembled visitors began to recover some control.
Palace had lost their previous three fixtures, conceding a total of eight times, and perhaps expectedly their early confidence began to dwindle.
Rooney watched his 25th-minute curling free-kick comfortably palmed away by Palace's Wayne Hennessey and then hesitated when, with both time and space to score following Anthony Martial's classy through-ball, struggling to control possession and allowing Hennessey to collect the loose ball.
Palace's one dimension had been exposed, yet for all of United's superior quality it became apparent why they had failed to score during their past two games, the second a Capital One Cup defeat by Middlesbrough that also went to extra-time.
Again they played with such caution, as was the case throughout almost all of last season and as has also been for much of this. The B£59.7million Angel di Maria has already been one expensive casualty of Louis van Gaal's reign, and on this evidence there are several who could be the next.
Such unremarkable performances could previously be excused, owing to the players adjusting to their manager's methods – and Van Gaal working with a largely-inherited squad – but as he has since spent heavily their lack of direction is no longer acceptable.
It almost felt an admission of guilt when, with Palace again improving – albeit without testing De Gea – and United seemingly bereft of ideas, the manager substituted two of his summer signings, Darmian and Bastian Schweinsteiger, for two of those signed before his 2014 appointment, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young.
Palace resiliently defended in the game's closing stages with United targeting Fellaini with repeated long balls, but without the injured Connor Wickham and Marouane Chamakh they lacked their own focal point in attack.
After Dann and Cabaye had again threatened, Bolasie sent another late close-range header over the crossbar when well placed to score, but despite his failure to do so a point and a clean sheet – given Palace's recent run and the ambitions of their opposition – represented a positive result.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
"'You have to say Man Utd have defended brilliantly against Palace today!" Hang on. That's not how it works – supposed to be other way round." – Danny Baker (@prodnose) reacts to the result.
Wayne Hennessey: 7
Joel Ward: 7
Scott Dann: 7
Yohan Cabaye: 7
Yannick Bolasie: 7
Wilfried Zaha: 5
Dwight Gayle: 6
James McArthur: 6
Damien Delaney: 6
Martin Kelly: 6
Jason Puncheon: 6
Mile Jedinak 5
David de Gea: 8
Marcos Rojo: 7
Juan Mata: 7
Anthony Martial: 7
Wayne Rooney (c): 6
Chris Smalling: 6
Daley Blind: 6
Ander Herrera: 6
Morgan Schneiderlin: 6
Bastian Schweinsteiger: 6
Matteo Darmian: 6
Ashley Young 5
Marouane Fellaini 5
Jesse Lingard 5
MAN OF THE MATCH
David de Gea. Is there any ever alternative when a Manchester United player wins Man of the Match? The goalkeeper was typically crucial to them keeping a clean sheet. Unlike opposite number Wayne Hennessey, he was repeatedly tested, and with an inferior goalkeeper – perhaps Sergio Romero – United could easily have fallen to defeat.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
If ever there was a fixture capable of highlighting the contrast in Premier League managers' philosophies it was this. Manchester United's Louis van Gaal was determined to start the composed, ball-playing Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Daley Blind, regardless of shape or position. For Crystal Palace's Alan Pardew, it was somehow fitting the small, fast Dwight Gayle, Jason Puncheon, Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie into the same team. The pair have similarly-sized egos, mind.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Mid-way through the first half, Anthony Martial played an excellent through-ball to Wayne Rooney which, had he been playing with greater confidence, the forward would have controlled before finishing in the fashion expected of him. Instead he hesitated, allowing Wayne Hennessey to almost-routinely collect possession before he could do so.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
Manchester United have one of the world's most expensive squads and, by reputation at least, one of the world's finest managers. However, well into his second season in charge at the club, Louis van Gaal appears to have little idea about the direction in which he wants to take his team, or who he sees as central to his plans.
WHO'S UP NEXT?
Liverpool v Crystal Palace (Premier League, Sunday November 8).
Manchester United v CSKA Moscow (Champions League, Tuesday November 3).
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