Too reliant on second-half comebacks, too reliant on Bruno Fernandes. At some point this is going to become a problem for Manchester United. At least, that’s how it should be, even if right now it’s not.
But as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rests his head on Saturday evening, with Manchester United fourth, three points off the top of the table, he might wonder why the fuss. Why choose between being good and being lucky when you can just about get away with being both.
As has been the way in three of Manchester United’s five away games in the league, they trailed at halftime and went on to avoid defeat. Just as they did last week, they won from a seemingly hopeless position, scoring thrice in a dominant second-half that had their opposition wondering what on earth has just happened.
Because like Southampton last Sunday, West Ham were the better side for an hour. Their 1-0 lead through Tomas Soucek in the first half, was no less than they deserved. But in 13 minutes, that goal, their effort and the whole complexion of this game was twisted in such devastating fashion that the 2,000 fans who belted out Forever Blowing Bubbles at their homecoming, in good voice throughout, were left bemused at the final whistle.
It was Paul Pogba, starting his first league match since the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford at the start of November and booed relentlessly here, who quietened them first with an equaliser from 25 yards on 65 minutes that was set-up by Fernandes. Mason Greenwood’s control to wrong-foot his defender and strike a sharp volley into the bottom corner established the lead before Marcus Rashford put it beyond doubt.
Both Rashford and Fernandes started the game on the bench: the defeat against Paris Saint-Germain earlier in the week take its toll and putting greater onus on the upcoming clash with RB Leipzig. Unsurprisingly, their absence was all too evident. Edinson Cavani’s first league started just 45 minutes, as did Donny van der Beek’s evening, both hooked for a dire opening period.
West Ham will spend much the aftermath of this tossing and turning over countless missed opportunities. Their opener, when it did arrive, was absolutely with the run of play. Even beyond Jarrod Bowen’s disallowed goal after eight minutes, all that was objectively good and worthwhile came in claret and blue. If anything, it was overdue
Pablo Fornals should have broken the deadlock with a header at the back post after Bowen had breezed past Alex Telles with ease. That was a theme throughout the first-half, of Bowen causing disturbances all over the pitch.
He was again involved when Fornals spurned his second chance. This time the Spaniard found the right side of the post, though was unable to avoid it completely, as a grateful Dean Henderson, deputising for the injured David de Gea, gathered the rebound off the woodwork.
But the regularity at which chances were being created meant there was never a sense that these were to be rued. Perhaps there should have been. David Moyes seem satiated by the ease at which his side were cutting through, and especially given the one they did convert seven minutes from half-time came from a set-piece. Aaron Cresswell’s corner was flicked over by Declan Rice and forced home for Soucek’s fifth goal of the season. Soon after Sebastian Haller lost his nerve (and footing) after rounding Henderson and checking back onto his right foot to make sure of the finish, West Ham’s would have been 2-0 up at the break, though there was a suggestion he might have been off side.
And so on came Fernandes, on came Rashford. Solskjaer’s first and last rolls of the dice coming thrown out midway. Their introductions did not immediately show signs that this game was going to be flipped. Bowen’s sliding effort at the far post failed to connect effectively with Vladimir Coufal’s pass across goal felt like a warning that this half was to be much the same.
But it was Mata’s substitution - for Anthony Martial - that finally set Manchester United alight. Another creative type - and a left-footer, no less - opened new avenues through West Ham’s 3-4-2-1 system, even though the equalising goal was very “route one”.
A big boot down field from Henderson - cleared by VAR after a suspicion it had curled out of play - was raced onto by Fernandes, whose jinking on the right allowed Pogba time to catch up in the centre and use his momentum to impart all the necessary power and curve to find the top corner.
In fact, the second for the visitors was hardly one for the aesthete, beyond Greenwood’s satisfying one-two punch. But Fernandes’ hassling of Lukas Fabianski produced a throw-in in the final third that the Portuguese collected and back-heeled to Telles for the cross into the 19-year-old.
Nevertheless, number three was very much a goal for substitutes, by substitutes. Fernandes laid off to Mata, who swung a crisp pass through the West Ham defence to Rashford. Having missed an earlier one-on-one with a scuffed effort that struck the outside the post, this time he went up and over Fabianski.
Perhaps, though, in a match altered by the bench, it's worth crediting those who stayed on and turned around their own performances. It was a surprise to see Pogba last the course, certainly emerge after half-time given how slack he was in possession early on. And after a tough period for Greenwood, his 20th goal since the start of last season was a welcome notch in a lively display.
Surely one day Manchester United will not get away with performances like this. But every time they don't, that day seems less and less certain.
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