LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Manchester United’s 2-0 Premier League at West Ham on Monday.
1. Man United march on vs. 10-man Hammers
Manchester United march on, and if this run of form continues, a return to the top four will surely not be too long in coming. Six Premier League wins in a row represents a remarkable turnaround given their bleak autumn fortunes, and with Liverpool dropping points at Sunderland earlier in the day, suddenly the prospect of Jose Mourinho’s side putting serious pressure on those in the Champions League places looks entirely realistic.
A goal just after the hour by substitute Juan Mata was added to by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and that saw off a spirited West Ham side, who had chances of their own and will rightly point to the 15th-minute dismissal of their midfielder Sofiane Feghouli as the game’s major turning point.
It was the hosts, in bright enough form of late to make relegation a fading concern, who started the better. David De Gea diverted Manuel Lanzini’s 10th-minute shot wide with a strong left hand, although the playmaker’s effort was probably bound for the post.
Yet that would be as rosy as their fortunes got. Five minutes later Feghouli, challenging for a Michail Antonio pass with Phil Jones, was beaten to the ball by the United centre-back but caught him in the follow-through. It was a painful collision but did not seem worthy of extreme punishment; Feghouli’s foot did not seem to be raised, but referee Mike Dean disagreed, and to Slaven Bilic’s incredulity, West Ham were down to 10 men.
It still took United another 20 minutes to get going, although they should have scored on 35 minutes when an Ibrahimovic cross cut back by Henrikh Mkhitaryan found Antonio Valencia alone in the six-yard box. Somehow Darren Randolph kept his shot out and then dove on the ball with relief when Jesse Lingard’s follow-up rebounded off the inside of the post into his arms. The goal-line camera showed that the ball had stayed out by mere inches.
West Ham United
De Gea clawed another Lanzini effort away as West Ham showed they still carried a threat. Early in the second half, Antonio narrowly missed a Dimitri Payet free kick, and then on the hour, he was slid one-on-one with De Gea by the excellent Lanzini, only to see the goalkeeper stand tall to save.
That proved costly, as within three minutes, Mata latched onto a cutback by fellow substitute Marcus Rashford to fire first time past Randolph and give West Ham a mountain to climb. Ibrahimovic, looking slightly offside when a poor clearance from Pedro Obiang hit Ander Herrera and fell to him, scored an unceremonious second 12 minutes from the end, and that was enough to kill the contest.
2. Mourinho’s changes turn the game
Two substitutions by Mourinho turned this game in United’s favour. At half-time he replaced Matteo Darmian with Mata and dropped Michael Carrick into the back four, hoping the new midfield arrival could make the most of their surfeit of possession, and in the 57th minute, he introduced Rashford for the below-par Lingard. The difference was instant, and it was no surprise that Rashford’s first run at Havard Nordtveit, an uncomfortable figure at right-back throughout, paid dividends.
The United teenager teased his way past the Norwegian and showed exceptional composure to find Mata, arriving 12 yards out, for the sweetest of left-footed finishes into the far corner. Another sparkling Rashford run 16 minutes from time saw Paul Pogba, fed on the edge of the area, fizz an effort just wide. Shortly afterwards, after receiving a pass from Ibrahimovic, he drew a smart save from Randolph, but the Swede would go one better shortly afterwards by beating the keeper with a thumping shot.
Rashford and Mata had given United the tonic they badly needed. Perhaps United were feeling the pace of two games in little more than 48 hours — a problem shared by their hosts — but they only sparkled in fits and spurts here before the first goal, putting in the kind of performance often seen at the tail end of a gruelling Christmas period. It said plenty that De Gea was arguably their best and most important player prior to Mata’s intervention, and a more confident finish than the one Antonio — faced with the whites of his eyes shortly after the interval — could produce might have put them in trouble.
Instead they ticked off this latest assignment and suggested that Mourinho, who made five changes to his starting lineup in what was largely an attempt to lessen the effects of a punishing schedule, is beginning to master the pack he has at his disposal.
3. Spirited West Ham undone by Dean
This was a respectable effort from West Ham, but it was undone by the error from Dean that, despite the chances they went on to create, meant they were always fighting an uphill battle against superior opponents.
At the outset, you wondered whether this could be the night when London Stadium began to feel a little bit more like their home. The last time the Hammers hosted this fixture back in May, it saw Manchester United beaten amid heady, emotional scenes at the last game ever held at Upton Park. It has been an awkward start to life in their new home but at the start of a new year and against a familiar foe, this seemed the perfect time for West Ham to rediscover an element of their identity.
They gave it a go, but that was not enough. Bilic had brought Obiang, Lanzini and Feghouli into a side that lacked a recognised striker at the outset, although Antonio took up nominal centre-forward duties. Feghouli’s red card forced a rapid change and meant a side that had started on the front foot was obliged to play on the counter, dropping deep and allowing their opponents the bulk of possession.
Dean later offered West Ham something of a reprieve, failing to punish Cheikhou Kouyate for a poor challenge on Mkhitaryan just after the break, but the damage was done.
What Feghouli’s dismissal did achieve was the awakening of a crowd that has struggled to make this venue a cauldron. West Ham’s supporters were enraged and so too was Bilic, who was out of his dugout later in the half to urge them to greater levels of volume.
They saw a spirited response from their side, and perhaps it was that lack of a genuine striker that meant the decent opportunities they created were not taken. They will regret that, but most of all they will wonder whether their best chance was taken away by Dean.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.