A yardstick for the success of a football club in a domestic season is their consistency. Over the last three years, Manchester United fans have had to realise that positive consistency is a luxury, and not the norm, as it may have seemed with the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson. Under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal there were numerous false dawns in which United looked like a team with purpose and quality. Each glimmer of hope, however, was quickly stubbed out, with some of the most memorable stubbing-outs at the hands of West Bromwich Albion.
United had not won at the Hawthorns in their three previous visits, losing two and drawing one. To make matters worse for the Reds, the Baggies had won three consecutive home games and were sitting just three points below United before kick-off. With Jose Mourinho at the helm of United and Tony Pulis behind West Brom’s steering wheel, one could easily envision a dull, low scoring match.
Unfortunately, for the neutral, the game played out pretty much as expected. United opened proceedings with a goal through Zlatan Ibrahimović in the 5th minute before taking their foot off the gas to absorb West Brom’s push for an immediate equaliser. The Reds created a couple more opportunities before half time, but, more importantly, solidified their defence against the potentially dangerous attack of Nacer Chadli, Matt Phillips and Salomón Rondón. The Venezuelan striker, who scored a hat trick of headers just three days prior, nodded West Brom’s best chance of the match over the bar before half time.
The second half, too, failed to live up to the Premier League’s glowing standards of excitement. United, though, did the one thing that they have failed to achieve against many of their opponents this season; consolidate a win by adding a two goal cushion. Zlatan grabbed the second with a nice piece of individual skill followed by a luckily deflected shot past former Red, Ben Foster. Mourinho’s men sat back for the remained of the game and saw out all three points.
It is now four wins in a row for United in all competitions, a feat last observed at the beginning of the season. That run of wins came to an end with the visit of local rivals Manchester City. This time, United face Sunderland and Middlesbrough at home, two very winnable games. With this new found momentum and belief, Manchester United genuinely have a chance of breaking into the top tier of the domestic league if any one of the current top five have a wobble.
GK: David De Gea: 6
A very calm day at the office for the Spaniard. Was not called into any serious action throughout the whole match due to the solidity of the organised defence in front of him. His distribution was good: one lobbed-through-ball goal kick found Rooney impressively on the left wing.
RB: Antonio Valencia: 7
A stereotypically robust performance from the Ecuadorian right back. His physical attributes (his strength and pace) gave West Brom issues defensively and offensively with neither Allan Nyom nor Phillips being able to deal with Valencia. Played a brilliant through ball to Jessie Lingard which led to the opening goal. The one mark that can be put next to his name was his inability to stop Phillips’ cross which Rondon headed over. Other than that, it is all gold stars for Mourinho’s golden pupil.
RCB: Phil Jones: 8
Finally living up to Ferguson’s prophecy, the ex-Blackburn Rovers defender looks like the centre back which United have been looking for since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić left the club. Only lost one header against the towering Rondon and marshalled West Brom’s attacks efficiently. Made an impressive eight clearances too, showing his no-nonsense outlook towards defending.
LCB: Marcos Rojo: 9
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
While you can argue, “West Brom did not offer enough to merit Rojo a 9/10”, you would be ignoring the purity of the Argentine’s performance. Rojo put in, without doubt, his best performance in a United shirt against the Baggies. Fourteen clearances, 100% tackle success rate, 100% aerial success rate and a very impressive (for his capabilities) 87% pass accuracy. While Rojo was lucky not to pick up a red card against both Everton and Crystal Palace, the Argentine defender put in a squeaky clean performance in his one-on-one duels with Rondon, despite earning a ridiculous yellow card when the Venezuelan striker slapped him.
LB: Matteo Darmian: 8
Much more convincing defensively than against Tottenham Hotspur. Darmian is a typical Italian footballer: very solid and well drilled in the dark arts of defending but poor in the more technically demanding final third of the pitch. Against West Brom, however, Matteo put in a good shift going forward, supporting Rooney well whenever the skipper cut inside on his right foot. Made an assuring eight interceptions, three more than the whole of the Baggies’ defence combined.
CDM: Michael Carrick: 8
A directing performance good enough to earn an Oscar. Carrick pulled all the strings in the game, putting his foot in to stop West Brom attacks and adding composure to United’s build up play with his incisive passing and nonchalant body language. Six interceptions, four clearances and a passing accuracy of 92% show his importance to Mourinho’s starting eleven.
RCM: Ander Herrera: 7
Like Valencia, Mourinho’s other reliable student is the hardworking Spaniard from Bilbao. His industrious running helped United retain possession and pull West Brom’s (normally very organised) midfield all over the shop. Three tackles and five interceptions illustrate Herrera’s role as the energetic box-to-box midfielder.
LCM: Paul Pogba: 8
Glided over the pitch so gracefully that Ferguson’s description of Giggs’ running style could have been aptly appropriated to the Frenchman. Dictated United’s attacking play and whipped some very appeasing cross-field passes to Valencia on the right wing. A few long range efforts could have been more accurate but Pogba’s all round game was enough to bring United the three points.
RM: Jessie Lingard: 8
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
So often criticised for not being enough quality for Manchester United, Lingard once again showed how integral he is to Mourinho’s squad. His brilliant half-volleyed cross put the ball on a silver platter for Ibrahimović for United’s opener. The Mancunian’s runs behind the defence stretched West Brom and allowed the creation of plenty of chances, most notably his lay off to Rooney whose shot was saved onto the crossbar. While he skied a very good opportunity to put United 2-0 up before the break, Lingard’s tireless running gave the Reds another dimension in the attacking third which helped pry open Pulis’ well-drilled defence.
LM: Wayne Rooney: 7
Mourinho has managed to find a very suitable role for United’s skipper of late. On the wing, Rooney’s work rate can be harnessed while his passing and goal threat are still visible. His snap shot, which Foster tipped onto the crossbar, was a typical thunderous effort which Rooney is still capable of producing.
ST: Zlatan Ibrahimović: 9
Critics claimed that the mercenary striker would not be able to tuck away goals in the Premier League like he did in Ligue 1. While Zlatan is not hitting the same goal-to-game ratio that he was at Paris Saint Germain, he is clearly a suitable match to the English physicality. His brace against West Brom, a formidable header followed by a deflected effort, takes his domestic goal tally to 11 in 17 matches; a similar level to the likes of Diego Costa, Sergio Agüero and Alexis Sánchez.
Marcus Rashford: 7
Came on for the tiring Lingard and added frightening pace to United on the counter. Had to be wiped out by Chris Brunt when the youngster had the chance to burst into West Brom’s half unopposed.
Marouane Fellaini: N/A
Was cheered and applauded by United’s travelling support after the grim reception which the Belgian experienced at Old Trafford the previous weekend. Took Rooney’s place and helped solidify all three points for United.
Chris Smalling: N/A
Replaced Herrera in the dying moments of the game to waste some time and add further steel to United’s defence. Is unlikely to break into the first team given the form of Rojo and Jones.