Someone forgot to tell West Ham that this is supposed to be the season of vanishing aura at Old Trafford. Instead it was a return to the old days: Manchester United running a thread through the visiting midfield and their opponents reaching half-time without a solitary shot on target. United’s fans felt emboldened enough as evening encroached to “stand up for the champions”, not a fact to report too often this season.
For a change, the questions about job security belonged to the opposition manager. “We are not in a very good position in the League. We are concerned about that – all of us, owners included,” Sam Allar-dyce said. “Where you actually finish in the League depends on the money you’ve spent; it’s a statistical fact, that.”
He said the return of his injured “players of quality” – Stewart Downing, Ricardo Vaz Te, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll – will make the difference. But five defeats in seven put his team in a bad place, while his analysis of United – “You always have to weather the storm and not give them too much encouragement” – simply lacked contemporaneity.
There were quarrels with officialdom – Allardyce claimed a Tom Cleverley penalty-box handball; his opposite number, David Moyes, said George McCartney should have been dismissed for putting studs into the foot of Javier Hernandez, who scored a controversially disallowed goal – but few argued with the verdict that West Ham were just dismal.
We must beware false dawns with United, but they could be in the top four by the new year. Their last four games of 2013 are all against teams in the bottom half, while the top four will all have played each other twice. “The rhythm in attack is beginning to get better, we’re beginning to create more chances,” said Moyes.
The script of this season suggested that Ravel Morrison might be a potential tormentor, though his performance yesterday – anonymous – did not suggest that Sir Alex Ferguson had failed Moyes by letting the 20-year-old go. A bad hack at Cleverley, which earned Morrison a booking, was his one conspicuous moment as a United midfield that has looked so vulnerable to sides advancing through it at pace instead stamped its own mark.
Phil Jones offered more of the poise which has made him United’s stand-out player in the middle so far this season, and Wayne Rooney’s workmanship was outstanding again. But the touch and finish of Danny Welbeck were the outstanding commodities of a first half in which the result was all wrapped up.
Welbeck’s role at the axis of a give-and-go move helped carve out both goals within an 11-minute period. A dextrous flick of his instep created the first, releasing Cleverley’s pass to Rooney, who forged forward and returned it to Welbeck, who slotted his first Old Trafford goal since October 2012 from an acute angle.
Second time around, Welbeck was the provider, delivering to Adnan Januzaj, advancing to take the ball back, then flicking it back to the teenager, who feinted past James Collins with a touch of the left foot and sent it past the Spanish goalkeeper Adrian with his right.
Januzaj was also booked for one of the season’s more ridiculous pieces of gamesmanship – diving for a challenge from Collins which never came – though Moyes leapt equally athletically to his defence. “If you look at the last two games, the amount of tackles he has had to take, he has taken more tackles than any other player. So we’ll talk to him about it, but you might be picking on the wrong person today,” the manager said.
Yet with Rooney dropping deep to help United build, the chances kept coming. Chris Smalling, as assured as Jones in the way he built counterattacking opportunities, began a move which ended in Antonio Valencia firing over. Even Ashley Young was able to rediscover the forgotten pleasure of wearing United’s jersey, settling on a Rooney lay-off to curl a third goal, four minutes after arriving in place of Januzaj. He had not scored here since May 2012.
That West Ham broke through to score was a reminder that they did possess strikers. One substitute, Carlton Cole, capitalised on the failure of another, Alex Buttner, to push up with the defensive line, bursting on to Modibo Maiga’s pass to spring the offside trap and score.
Moyes reflected on the prospect of reinforcing his squad next month. “We’ll look, but I wouldn’t turn around and say we’re massively sure we’ll get them, because a lot of the players we’d be interested in won’t be available in January.” This was a day when that need of extra help seemed a little less urgent.
Manchester Utd (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra (Butner, 80); Cleverley, Jones; Valencia, Rooney, Januzaj (Young, 68); Welbeck (Hernandez, 54).
West Ham (4-1-4-1): Adrian; Demel, Collins (Rat, 75), Tomkins, McCartney; Noble; Diamé, Morrison, Taylor (Collison, 62), Jarvis (C Cole, 71); Maiga.
Referee: Michael Jones.
Man of the match: Jones (Manchester Utd)
Match rating: 7/10