Manchester United are doing what it takes: winning to ensure that those chasing their second place don’t gain ground, this daring victory after Leicester’s previous third-place win on Sunday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team wasn’t an irresistible football buzz, but they won’t mind. By pressuring Craig Dawson to pass their goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, United also kept West Ham nine points behind them in fifth place in the challenge for a Champions League berth, their absolute minimum requirement.
Solskjær was able to select Marcus Rashford after it was an injury problem. This was good news as Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani, two other front-line forwards, were unavailable with their own illnesses.
David Moyes was forced to shut out fit Jesse Lingard due to his status as a United borrower, but could be satisfied with an opening that saw his team push United deep into their turf. This culminated in a corner won on the left by Michail Antonio through a cross that was deflected by Victor Lindelof.
Mark Noble threw this at the far post, then Aaron Wan-Bissaka fell, as did Craig Dawson, in a mini-pile-up of players, but referee Martin Atkinson saw no foul.
United’s response was to dominate the rest of the half. First came a measured sequence in which Rashford moved along a right channel and fed Mason Greenwood and when he touched inside, the ball went to the left. Luke Shaw received it, rolled onto a cross, and there was Greenwood attempting a kickback. Fabianski stood up.
When Moyes’s are in song, the ball is hit with a tempo and direction that quickly moves them upward. United’s remedy for this was simple: monopolize possession and thus immobilize their opponents.
Twice, however, when Greenwood received inside the Hammers half, a loose distribution handed the ball to the visitors, a foul that was later repeated by Wan-Bissaka, prompting Harry Maguire, the captain, to inform his team. team in a colorful diction of “tidy up”. They did it. Shaw claimed a corner he took himself from the left, Maguire led this to no avail and United were turned away. But they had become a smoother unit.
Then Bruno Fernandes showed a touch of class, feinting to shoot when Antonio closed it, then used the patio he won to turn inside. This resulted in nothing, as did his next offer, which was to feed Greenwood from the right: his chip hit Rashford with a free header, but the forward froze and his effort was weak.
However, this had turned into a competition between United’s attack and West Ham’s defense. Greenwood’s footwork broke the latter and a threatening cross earned a shot from a teammate who was absent while Dawson and Fabianski cleaned up. Then Rashford threw a pass behind Dawson that put Shaw close to the goal on the baseline. Again West Ham escaped, but there was more encouragement that United could tear down the accumulated resistance.
Greenwood is unmanageable when he runs in like he did after Fernandes passed him. The center forward’s turn-then-shot was heading for Fabianski’s right corner before he threw it to the post. Greenwood was distraught, but West Ham was reeling.
A killer touch was missing, like when Dan James fired a cross early in the second half that went through the area but didn’t have a United man to turn home.
Copious possession means nothing if you fail to concede goals and there is also the danger of being hit on the counter, although West Ham’s lack of ambition tempered this.
Given his position, Moyes may have planned a draw, but if so, it soon required a rethink. After Vladimir Coufal stabbed a Greenwood cross, Fernandes made noise in the corner from the left. Scott McTominay got up, as did Dawson, who was very close to Maguire: the center-back’s header was a classic own goal, which came when Dawson tried to clear, but managed to beat Fabianski with unwanted ease.
West Ham’s initial response came via a penalty call when Maguire challenged Tomas Soucek, but Atkinson conceded a goal kick. At the other end, Fernandes’ 20-yard effort was stopped by a strong palm from Fabianski.
The final phase was about United’s game management. West Ham tested: Coufal hit a cross, Shaw blocked a Soucek effort, but Greenwood came within a second when he hit Fabianski’s right post. In the end, United could rightly think that while it was not pleasant, the victory was deserved.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism