At one stage after coming on as a substitute, Marcus Rashford won a couple of full-blooded slide tackles one after the other to set Manchester United away on the counter-attack. It was the kind of situation United had been dreaming of all afternoon.
Against a well-organised and determined Crystal Palace, getting any kind of space behind their midfield line had proven to be difficult. The ball reached Alexis Sanchez – the dud signing from Arsenal who costs more in wages every week than any other Premier League player.
To his left was Anthony Martial – United’s talisman this season and their creative hub. Sanchez tried to find him with what for a professional forward must count as a straightforward pass. It went behind the France forward’s stride and out of play for a throw-in.
Just like that another United opportunity went up in a puff of smoke. Just like that, the fans at Old Trafford slumped back before they’d even had the chance to get out of their seats.
That kind of break is United’s best chance of scoring in games like this. They surrender territory and invite what should be lesser teams onto them in the anticipation of getting in behind quickly once the ball is won back.
It’s not pretty but it should be enough to get the job done. But this is a failing team. It is quickly becoming one of the most unacceptable United teams they’ve seen in these parts for quite some time.
If the counter-attack doesn’t work, then the high ball would have to suffice. So, Marouane Fellaini was the first substitute introduced. Remember before the international break when Jose Mourinho said that Manchester City would have been in big trouble in the derby if only he could have replaced Fellaini with… Fellaini?
He did well that day but only made a nuisance of himself here. One tackle on Luka Milivojevic should have seen him sent off. And when Alexis was summoned, it was Paul Pogba called ashore.
He spent part of the international break getting meat dropped into his mouth by Salt Bae in Dubai and it’s fair to say Pogba is making more of an impact on Instagram than he is at Old Trafford at the minute.
Another game passed him by where he came looking for the easy pass from the man in possession before attempting to shape the game in his image from there. It didn’t work.
There were fitness issues to contend with, sure, as there were for plenty of other United players. But wouldn’t it have been better if Pogba earned his early substitution with decisive game-defining actions rather than being subjected to it?
Anyway, they scarcely had a second-half chance to speak of. Romelu Lukaku did have the ball in the net after an Ashley Young drive was parried back into his path. But he was offside. He was unlucky with another header when Wayne Hennessey made a great save.
There are two sides to Lukaku, though, and on another occasion he dropped deep and tried to trap a ball but succeeded only in sending it 15 yards in the wrong direction and setting up a counter-attack chance for Andros Townsend. It was like a parody of a bad Lukaku first touch.
If Mourinho had any more subs to throw on he probably would have done it there and then because that’s the only tactical solution he seeks. If the first player fails, replace him. If the second fails, well, who knows what comes next?
The first half was better where Jesse Lingard found some space and some chances and where Martial went close once or twice. Equally, Palace could have had a couple of their own.
Wilfried Zaha would appear to be the exact type of signing United are missing these days. If only someone had the foresight to keep him around when he was struggling as a young player.
He dragged one narrowly wide and could have set Patrick van Aanholt clear for another. His right foot is not as good as his left, though, and United escaped, just as they did in the second half when Townsend did something similar.
Palace even had an offside chance to mirror United’s when Cheikhou Kouyate nodded in at the end of the first half.
In all, a fair result between one team battling to avoid relegation and one pootling along in midtable. United are now 14 points from Manchester City at the top and 13 from Cardiff in 18th. That is damning at this stage of the season but the worst part of it is that it’s no surprise.