So United, then. One-nil winners against a West Ham side who pressured hard and may have deserved an equaliser, late-on. Rashford’s exhilarating goal with a rare, committed thunk past the keeper being ‘the difference’.
But quality-wise, there was little difference. In the first ten both Casemiro and Eriksen showed glimpses of their rarified best, either threading or spraying fabulous passes into feet, offering real hope that the mythical(?) corner into Team Flow and Sumptuous United-ness might yet be turned. But no. Casemiro looked statuesque and composed at times, and Eriksen was goodish and as central to any football as anyone, but this was again a relatively disappointing scramble.
Up top Ronaldo continued to seem shrunken in every respect: playing in a different game to his alleged partners Elanga – who again looked like a reserve team player thrown in during some flu epidemic – and Rashford, who only fitfully raised the hopes of the home support.
How the universe wishes that Ar Marcus could really blossom! From this occasionally wonderful, pacy, watchable, worthy local lad into the full package – the genuine United-level striker. A power header and a run or two was again not enough to convince. He was the pick of the strike force but Gary Neville’s Man of the Match Award was staggeringly generous; another sign that the universe *really does* want him to do well.
Rashford has a lot going for him; given that pace, dynamism and his substantial experience, you wonder why he remains so ‘up and down’. And if that wastefulness and inconsistency will always suppress his value to the cause. I fear it may: that he will always alternate between boyish profligacy and eye-catching vim. Cruel. Elanga was rightly withdrawn: the team had played poorly but he looked a misfit. Ronaldo barely had a meaningful kick.
The generally fair and frequently insightful Neville pointed out that a United midfield of Casemiro, Eriksen and Fernandes is a statement of culture and belief, from Ten Hag. Belief in quality, artfulness and in direction. They are all positive, creative players, essentially, in there to control possession and develop threat, as opposed to stem the flow from the opposition. (O-kaay, Casemiro has been holding but his lack of pace and inclination to bite marks him out as a passer – a ‘player’). This relates to both the manager’s (Dutch, Total Football-tastic) worldview and the United Way. It may not be ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK but it IS forward-looking and kinda generous.
Fernandes has now had a sustained dip in form. He’s become irritating and irritated; unable to flash even short passes to their target; easily distracted into verbals and resentful of every perceived injustice. Energetic, yes, but now mouthy and weirdly inconsistent. Battling against his previous: that notion that he is (or was) the King of Old Trafford, Playmaker and Leader of the Surge.
West Ham, particularly in the case of the consistently excellent Rice, stymied United’s rhythm. The Hammers often looked better with the ball, in fact, or at least had relatively convincing spells of possession. What the visitors couldn’t do was create clear-cut chances. United again could rarely string more than about five passes together without handing the ball back to the visitors; meaning the match was largely mediocre.
Dalot and Martinez were MU’s best players; both intervening aggressively and decisively throughout the game. The latter is likely to be a much-loved fixture in the side for some years, I suspect, for his hearty indomitability. De Gea looked solid. Maguire did ok, strolling around in that particular way of his, but there were moments when the heart of the United defence seemed about to unhinge and some of this seemed to be about his positioning and generous – that is to say trawler-like – turning-circle. (I may traduce the fella. But that wholly admirable composure on the ball does feel compromised by his capacity to find himself exposed). Varane and Martinez will be the first-choice partnership, in a four, surely?
The manager spoke well, after the event. He’s not sugar-coating the amount of work there is to be done and he plainly has the Ronaldo issue/ego in hand. The world superstar has clearly been emphatically bollocked for his recent petulance and knows now he will not walk into (even) this misfiring side. The expectation must be that he will go, on receipt of the first decent offer – go or retire.
For the second time in a week, Ten Hag felt compelled to shut up shop, as West Ham dominated the later stages. McTominay and Fred are a ver-ry different combination to Eriksen and Casemiro: in short they are nowhere near as good… but the gaffer hopes they might do that manning-of-the-hatches thing. You could see McTominay working in a rampaging United side – a Fergie team – as the tenacious clatterer behind inspirational flyers, but his DNA is closer to Celtic or Rangers than Man City or Bayern. He may survive if United inherit a new clutch of irresistible forwards: if they don’t (or Sancho/Rashford/Anthony continue to underachieve), the tall Scot will remain a squad player, on merit. Or go, possibly, alongside his fire-fighting Brazilian comrade.
A cold view of Manchester United might be that this mighty club still has too many players unworthy of the badge. Too many who look like Academy players-plus, journeymen, or guys who simply lack the mentality to live at that level, in that shirt. The manager appears to have a handle on this and is gradually re-building. He knows what they lack and has the authority and strategic intelligence to nudge this intimidating project towards authenticity and contention. West Ham are a well-organised, mid-table outfit with minimal cutting edge. United just about held out.