The 135th FA Cup final will take place tomorrow, and the historical significance of the occasion will find its perfect match in the outdated, contrasting styles on the pitch. Manchester United have struggled to dazzle, or even go forward, all year. Crystal Palace have played their best while soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter. The problem is, United can be so toothless in attack that Palace will get very few opportunities to counter. What we could see tomorrow may well go down as one of the most boring games of the year: what happens when a warm stick of butter hits an under-inflated water balloon? That’s what we’re about to find out.
Now, if that is painting too dreary of a picture, take solace in the fact that a great game can spout out of nothing sometimes, and, as a fan of soccer, I can’t tell you how much I would love to see that happen.
Manchester United, when they have scored, have scored some pretty good goals. Just last week young phenom Marcus Rashford belted in a daisy cutter against Bournemouth after some nice build up play:
Despite paying hundreds of millions of dollars in transfer fees, large portions of which have often been focused on attacking talent, they haven't scored all that often. The squad that Louis van Gaal brought out this year only managed 49 goals in 34 games (all stats taken from WhoScored.com); that’s only one more than Sunderland, who were almost relegated. In fact, a total of 49 goals places Manchester United at 10th on the list of top scoring Premier League teams.
This dearth of attacking output can be blamed on a simple lack of quality across the entirety of United's squad. Wayne Rooney seems like he will never again be the player that could keep pace with Cristiano Ronaldo. Memphis Depay struggled in his first season at the club; Bastian Schweinsteiger was a non-factor in his. Youngsters Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford impressed, but they are teenagers and not capable of carrying a prolific scoring load.
Furthermore, there has been little to no creativity in the midfield. The one presence you would assume could always provide a spark, Juan Mata, has struggled to do so. He only has 5 assists, but even that low number is two higher than the second highest assisting midfielder, Antonio Valencia, who has 3.
Manchester United kept possession of the ball very well all season, only Arsenal kept more of it, but with the second most possession in the league they manufactured the 6th least amount of shots.
It doesn’t seem to matter who touches the ball, if they are wearing a Manchester United shirt, they are going to do very little.
United’s saving grace has been its defense, which, despite all of the flack its attack has received throughout the year, has been very good. They gave up the joint least goals of any Premier League team this year, 35, an impressive feat that may be helped by their slow speed of play, but is otherwise impossible to embellish.
This is the team that Crystal Palace is up against: one that keeps the ball, rarely does anything with it, and when it does lose possession, rarely concedes. It's hard to imagine that Palace can disrupt Manchester United’s formula given the shear gulf in class that exists between the two sides in midfield.
So, Palace will have to soak up a lot of pressure which, if the average United shows up, will rarely actually turn into anything else. If United misplace a pass or stumble into a cutting edged attack, Palace will have a chance to counter, but they will be running into one of the best defenses in the league. It is very hard to say that goals will be scored.
For that reason, I predict a 0-0 draw through extra time, with Manchester United taking it on penalties.