An own goal took Manchester United back to second place in the Premier League, and gave them a crucial win over West Ham – putting them 9 points clear of the Hammers who are in 5th, and therefore strengthening their Champions League position.
Anyone who watched the FA Cup game between these sides would not have been surprised by the cagey and static affair in the first half – it was slightly more entertaining than that game, though that was not saying much.
United’s main hopes in the first half came through Mason Greenwood; unfortunately there was no Greenwood to get on the end of his own good work. In the 24th minute, the home side got their first opening when the number 11’s cross was headed wide by Rashford. The England striker knew he should have done better.
With West Ham content to sit back in the first period, it was on their hosts to exploit any gaps. But the Hammers were disciplined – United, for their part, were too pedestrian. One of the unique parts of lockdown football has been hearing more coaching instructions – it was clear that the United staff were keen for the players to show more attacking movement.
When they heeded the call, the best chance of the opening period came – Greenwood fashioning a little space from a Fernandes pass, but his effort was tipped on to the post by Fabianski.
Inevitably, it was Greenwood’s industry that led to the breakthrough early in the second half. It was his run and cross that won a corner – Fernandes took it, McTominay got a faint touch to it, but the ball went in the net via visiting defender Dawson.
West Ham had to become more adventurous from that moment, and it helped United create a couple more chances – Fernandes hit a shot from the edge of the box which Fabianski had to do well to save. In the 77th minute, Greenwood raced down the pitch, aided by the decoy run of Rashford, and hit the post.
For their increased ambition, the visitors never tested Henderson, and Manchester United – often criticised this season for failure to win these kind of games – passed a test. It was deserved, if unconvincing.
Aside from the risk element of picking Marcus Rashford, this was United’s strongest and most sensible team. So the question turned to – was it a strong enough team to win, and would Solskjaer time and choose his changes well if not?
Another side to this is – it’s all well and good to know what the best team is on paper. But there are too many games where we’ve seen performances like this – it’s frustrating that Ole, a manager who has shown tactical flexibility in the past, seems so stubborn or myopic about the difficulty his team are in at the moment, and the difficulty they often find in games like this. It would be to Solskjaer’s credit if he showed some invention when it comes to the attacking formations.
He would probably be moved to say his team did enough to win as they were. He would have a point, but the proof is always in whether it would be a turning point, and his players could do this more often. You give the benefit of the doubt when they do well, but there was precious little to suggest a corner has been turned.
For now it’s about getting over the line. United did that, but when the players are put through the same paces and do mostly the same things, you have to ask questions of the manager too. Again, credit where it’s due – one game at a time.
— United Goals ⚽️ (@UnitedGoals__) March 14, 2021