It was the last meaningful kick of this game but the most meaningful kick of Ralf Rangnick’s interim spell in charge of Manchester United so far. The stoppage time, 93rd-minute winner pushed United above their visitors West Ham and into the Premier League’s top four for the first time since October, making the minimum expectation for this season suddenly look a lot more realistic, and it could also be an especially meaningful goal for the scorer.
Much has been made about Marcus Rashford’s form of late but, after ending a long drought in the impressive midweek victory at Brentford, this should only lift his confidence further. Rashford did not exactly have much to do, just follow Edinson Cavani’s clever pull-back at the far post to finish off a quick and devastating United counter, but it decided a game that was otherwise low on quality.
Up until that point, United had not done enough to win this game. David Moyes and West Ham supporters might argue they still hadn’t. The goal was followed by a VAR check for offside against Cavani and was tight, to say the least. It was the type that could easily have resulted in the goal being ruled out last season, in the age of armpits, fingernails and thinner lines. The check was completed, though, and the goal was given.
Moyes is still waiting for his first league victory as a visitor to Old Trafford after 16 attempts, while he and his players are beginning to learn how difficult it is to sustain a season-long challenge to qualify for the Champions League. Not that United are suddenly in a strong position, though. Tottenham have three games in hand and can leapfrog them with the first of those at Chelsea tomorrow.
Clearly, it is too early for anything to be decided. But what United have needed is a result to demonstrate that slow, gradual progress is being made under Rangnick. Most of the interim manager’s matches in charge to date have come against teams from the league’s lower reaches. This was the first victory against a top-half side and that is significant, even if the performance left something to be desired.
The first half was so short on incident, you were left to wish that a drone operator had been in attendance. It ended without a single shot on target and even brief glimpses of attacking promise were few and far between. That suited one side, of course, but not the other. United had just about shaded proceedings but were struggling to build attacks against a West Ham outfit content to stay compact and take their chances on the counter-attack.
As is often the case with this United, their only real creative outlet was Bruno Fernandes. The one good delivery of the half was his cross from the inside-left channel, after dragging the ball onto his right foot, but Cristiano Ronaldo misjudged its path and fell a few inches short of making a connection with a diving header. That, and a Ronaldo free-kick driven into the wall, were as close as we came to any sort of breakthrough.
Ronaldo wanted a penalty towards the end of the half after tussling with Kurt Zouma, which recalled a couple of contentious calls involving the pair in September’s reverse fixture at the London Stadium. As on those occasions, nothing was given. Ronaldo was having something of a frustrating afternoon as the lone focal point to United’s attack, though Michail Antonio was not faring any better in the same role for West Ham.
If there is a discernible pattern to Rangnick’s United so far, it is that they are a team of two halves and that first shot on target arrived quickly at the start of the second. If it had fallen to someone other than Fred, it may have been converted, but his shot was easily pushed away by goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, making his league debut in place of the absent Lukasz Fabianski.
If anything was going to happen for the visitors, it was going to come through Jarrod Bowen. The in-form winger had been kept at arm’s length by a decidedly out-of-form Harry Maguire during the first half, though began to find some joy once he saw a menacing shot hit the side netting. Bowen then won a free-kick in a dangerous position, earning Maguire a yellow card, and later went on an 80-yard run from the edge of one penalty box to the other, only to be dispossessed as he shaped to shoot.
But that such a run warrants a mention in this report tells you everything about the paucity of good play. One of the other, few highlights was a new Stretford End chant for emerging talent Anthony Elanga, set to the tune of Snap’s “Rhythm is a Dancer”. The 19-year-old responded with a sweetly struck half-volley that dipped and swerved wide of Areola’s right-hand post, and was promptly replaced by Rashford.
That was the first of Rangnick’s substitutes, coming just after the hour mark, but the second and third did not follow until much later. Cavani and Anthony Martial were introduced at the same time with eight minutes remaining, joining Ronaldo, Fernandes and Rashford in the attack. There was an element of desperation about those changes, throwing everything at the wall in the hope something would stick. Thankfully, it did.
Four of those five attacking players combined for the winner, with Ronaldo first slipping the ball to Martial on the break. The out-of-favour Frenchman shifted it left to Cavani, who drove towards the byline. What was coming next was clear, the question was whether West Ham could stop it. Areola failed to cut out the cutback, leaving Rashford to bundle in at the far post. A poor game had been won by late drama to deliver United and Rangnick a potential turning point.
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