LONDON — Clearly Manchester United are doing some things right. You do not set an English league record for away league games without defeat (albeit one that should come with the almighty caveat of home advantage having all but vanished in the lockdown era) without showing some level of quality, fortitude and adaptability on your travels.
Yet those qualities were uniformly absent even as that streak reached 29 games in the cruellest of fashions for an excellent West Ham side on Sunday. Earlier in the day, the London Stadium had been serenading Jesse Lingard with chants of “he wants to go home.” In the 89th minute, he hit them with the dagger, darting onto his right foot and curling a shot beyond his former teammate Lukasz Fabianski to earn Manchester United a 2-1 win few would argue they merited.
If those who made an early exit from Stratford thought the pain could not get any deeper, they were wrong. A handball by Luke Shaw and VAR’s intervention handed the Hammers a chance for parity in stoppage time. Defenders Issa Diop and Ryan Fredericks were stripped off and readied, but the spot kick was calling for Mr. West Ham Mark Noble. As Gareth Southgate could tell him, there is no pressure like being called into the fray solely to take a crucial penalty, but surely Noble’s 90% success rate from the spot made him the natural choice, particularly against a goalkeeper who hadn’t saved a penalty in more than five years?
Even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted he thought the win had gone. “I believe in David,” he said. “He saved against Crystal Palace last season, didn’t he? And his foot was a little inch off the line. I’ve seen Mark Noble score so many penalties. You did feel down and out and expected to come home with one point, but luckily David has continued his good form.”
This could have been one of the defining moments of Noble’s final season with West Ham, one of the many highlights that will be beamed onto the London Stadium’s big screens in May when he gets his hero’s sendoff. Instead, he put his penalty a little too high, a little too near David de Gea and the game was gone.
The result was harsh on the hosts. Only one of these two teams appeared to be greater than the sums of their parts. West Ham had a plan, perhaps not the most ambitious that David Moyes will ever draft, but their compact shape proved to be agonizing for Manchester United to break down. The hosts did not lack for verve and invention when the time was right — Pablo Fornals was all back heels, no-look passes and elegant running between the line — but everything they did was to a purpose. The space was there to exploit behind Shaw and the Vladimir Coufal, Jarrod Bowen tandem did so. Had they had the suspended Michail Antonio to aim for in the box, they might have had far more joy.
With Bowen free to rove from his center forward position, the Hammers rather seemed to lack a focal point. Where often their fizzing counter attacks would end with a cross onto the head of Antonio, they now needed to work the ball into dangerous areas for that moment longer. In the first half, they did so effectively but it did not come all that naturally to them.
The hosts were aided in no small part by United’s befuddling attempts to defend their own half. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s defense were so easily drawn across the pitch in such numbers that when the ball came to Said Benrahma on the edge of the box, he had time to take a touch, get the ball out of his feet, check his DMs, feed his sourdough starter and have a good hard think about that novel he always wanted to write. Only then did he take his shot. Raphael Varane performed rather admirably to get back in time to deflect the shot; he might have been entitled to wonder where everyone else had got to.
Perhaps West Ham should have left it later than the 30th minute to open the scoring. It has become something of a habit for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side on their 29-game unbeaten away run in the Premier League that only when they go behind do they burst into life. That was certainly true here, a flurry of pressure ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo’s equalizer, a fleeting moment where the ball fizzed off their boots and where teammates had options ahead of them. It did not last long.
Perhaps Manchester United’s buildup was hindered by an early injury to Paul Pogba, who for much of the first half seemed to be feeling the after-effects of Kurt Zouma inadvertently planting his studs in his opponent’s foot. On those occasions where Pogba burst into life, he was just what the visitors needed in the engine room, the man who could glide up the pitch, beat a man and unbolt the West Ham rearguard. For most of the game he was stationed wide on the left.
Scott McTominay and Fred were overpowered by Tomas Soucek and Declan Rice, who on a game-by-game basis is offering Manchester United helpful reminders as to why they are right to want to sign him. There were sparks of life in the engine room, but they were so infrequent (and have been for much of Solskjaer’s tenure) that you could only double-take when they came along. Was that McTominay that played that through ball for Ronaldo?
The sheer footballing gravity fo United’s No. 7 was, it should be noted, a valuable creative outlet for United. At the right moment, he would drop deep to demand a pass, bringing a center back with him and creating space elsewhere for others to work with. But there was precious little guile from a team blessed with such attacking talent.
If something worked, Manchester United would hammer it again and again. So, because Bruno Fernandes created Cristiano Ronaldo’s equalizer with the most precise of deliveries to the back post — the striker extending his scoring run back in England as he snaffled the rebound when Lukasz Fabianski failed to hold his initial effort — crosses rained down on the West Ham box early in the second half. Trying to maneuver the ball into spaces that Pogba or Mason Greenwood could attack did not even seem to be up for consideration.
It might have gotten them to a winning situation rather earlier. Lingard swiftly showed what the visitors could achieve by adding a little directness to their game. West Ham fans may have dreaded it, but they could not run from it. Their talisman, the player who they might have built their attack around if they could have got a deal across the line this summer, is now a break-glass-in-emergency option for Solskjaer. That, ultimately, is why Manchester United are so successful. A discernible approach to building attacks and creating chances can win you games. But so can an abundance of superstar talent.