MANCHESTER, England — Three thoughts from a dour afternoon at Old Trafford as Man United and West Brom grappled to a 0-0 draw:
1. Man United struggle at home again
If Manchester United are to finish outside of the top four for the third time in four years, it will be because of days like this. Bournemouth, Hull, West Ham, Burnley and Stoke have all come to Old Trafford this season and all have left with a point. And now, with a suffocating, efficient defensive masterclass, West Bromwich Albion have joined them.
Watching from the directors’ box, Sir Alex Ferguson will have recalled countless occasions when games like this culminated with a dramatic last-minute winner. Evidently, Jose Mourinho has not been similarly blessed. There is now a chance that United, who had been marooned in sixth for much of the season until they rose above Arsenal last month, could rise all the way to second place. But not with results like this. And not with absentee lists like this, either.
West Bromwich Albion
This was a much-reduced United. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones both managed to pick up injuries on international duty; Paul Pogba and Juan Mata will join them in the treatment room on Monday and, of course, there was the small matter of suspensions for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera.
With so many players absent, this seemed an ideal opportunity for England left-back Luke Shaw to work his way back into the affections of his manager. Mourinho thought otherwise. He chose instead to play Ashley Young at left-back while Shaw didn’t even make a bench that included the likes of Alex Tuanzebe and Matthew Willock. His days are clearly numbered.
In a frustrating first half, shots on target were as frequent as yeti sightings in the Bahamas. The best chance, arguably the only clear-cut chance, came on the half-hour when Anthony Martial rose at the far post to meet Jesse Lingard’s cross but edged his header just wide.
There was just no room for United to operate. Every time they glimpsed a sight of Ben Foster’s goal, a blue and white shirt swam into view before they could get a shot off. The Old Trafford fans, subdued until the break, came to life only to boo when the referee blew his half-time whistle. Were they booing their own team? Were they booing West Brom for their uncompromising physicality? Were they booing themselves for paying money to watch something as exciting as a three-hour lecture on the history of pebbles?
Mercifully, the second half brought renewed intent, though decreased intent from the first half could have been achieved only if the players had stayed in the dressing room. Had former United stalwart Darren Fletcher not scuffed his close-range shot five minutes after the break, United might have been in all sorts of trouble, but the near miss seemed to spur them into action.
Lingard and Martial interchanged nicely up front, exchanging deft passes in an effort to unlock the defence. Marouane Fellaini slashed a shot just wide after a goal mouth scramble, and then Marcus Rashford, largely anonymous having been entrusted with the striker role, unleashed a ferocious shot that Ben Foster (another of the ex-United alumni) twisted in midair to parry.
But United couldn’t find a way through. Foster’s acrobatic parry of Rashford’s 88th-minute free kick was the last time they threatened. Too many more results like this and United’s best hope of qualifying for the Champions League will be to win the Europa League.
2. West Brom’s grit gets it done again
You have to salute Tony Pulis. This was another fine defensive performance from West Brom. Starting without Salomon Rondon, who returned from international duty on Friday, and with James Morrison considered fit enough only for a place on the bench, the 59-year-old chose to shut the game down from the first minute. And it worked beautifully.
The Baggies were so compact out of possession that every defender could have passed the other end of a skipping rope to the midfielder in front of him and between them and they’d never have been at risk of dropping it. They were a line of four, a very small gap, another line of four, the rather incongruous technical subtlety of Chris Brunt, a very, very big gap and, somewhere in the distance, Hal Robson-Kanu.
Both Rondon and Morrison were deployed after the break as United began to threaten, but their best chance came in the form of a Fletcher howitzer that was too hot for David De Gea to handle. The ball popped out of his hands and looked set to loop horribly into the back of the net. To Pulis’ evident horror, it bounced gently off the crossbar.
The Baggies might not be popular, but there aren’t many teams that can shut a game down as effectively as this. It might not be entertaining, but it is certainly a skill of sorts.
3. Rashford and Rooney no substitutes for Ibrahimovic
With the game beginning to slip away from United, Wayne Rooney made his return to the first team, slotting in behind Rashford with 17 minutes to go. Mindful of Rooney’s spectacular late free kick away at Stoke this season, the Old Trafford crowd roared in approval. But his most noteworthy contribution here was to toss Claudio Yacob to the ground in a late fracas that saw Fellaini booked.
With only 42 goals to their name this season, Man United need more of an edge than this. On a frustrating afternoon, they sorely missed Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.