Although defeat last weekend all but ended hopes of a return to the top of the English game, Jose Mourinho probably eyed City’s game with Spurs as a potential banana skin for Pep Guardiola’s men. It was not to be as they strolled to yet another demolition, but Mourinho said before the trip to West Brom that he hasn’t given up hope of the title. If that’s the case then the pressure was on to keep the gap down to 11.
Mourinho made 3 changes from the midweek victory against Bournemouth, with Ashley Young, Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford replacing Luke Shaw, Scott Mctominay and Anthony Martial. Like all managers at this time of the season, Mourinho will need to find the right balance with his squad as the games come thick and fast over the festive period.
Unlike the City game, United were expected to have most of the possession and they had just that. Dominating the ball but at a fairly pedestrian pace. Chances were a premium and the game was played out mainly in the midfield until the deadlock was broken after 27 minutes. United upped the tempo slightly, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard floating round the pitch more and it was Mata who was calm and found Rashford on the left. He easily beat his marker who gave too much space and time to pick his spot and find the head of Romelu Lukaku who made no mistake finding the top right-hand corner of Ben Foster’s net. From the replays, it was obvious the Belgian had more to do than first appeared, but that is the sort of service he thrives on and simply has not had enough of over the past few months. That made it 2 in 2 for the United number 9 who has had his critics recently. It is no surprise that when United play inferior opposition, Lukaku looks a different animal just like he was at Everton. Is that a problem with Lukaku or more reflection on Mourinho’s mindset in the big games? I think the latter as the man is an out and out goalscorer but he needs the service. With the way Mourinho approaches the big games, the service will be lacking and it is asking a lot of any striker to score the 1 chance they get in a game, every game.
The goal seemed to give United the confidence they were lacking before, and within 10 minutes they doubled the lead. Lingard, who once again got the nod in the number 10 position, finished off some neat passing from Nemanja Matic who found Mata who once again created the chance for Lingard from he edge of the box. His shot was not a great connection but with the help of a deflection off of Ahmed Hegazy, it wrong-footed Foster. The rest of the half was seen out with no further key moments but with United in complete control without really playing well.
Alan Pardew made a change at halftime, bringing Gareth Barry on for Claudio Yacob whilst Mourinho’s men were unsurprisingly unchanged. The half took a similar tone to the first with United in control without any real spark. The low point of the game came after the hour mark, when Antonio Valencia pulled up with what seemed to be a hamstring injury. Valencia has made the spot his own and will be a huge miss anyway, but with the hectic Christmas period coming up, Mourinho will need as many as possible to be available. The forced change saw Marcos Rojo come in at left back and Ashley Young switching sides to fill the Valencia void. After 2 man of the match displays from Luke Shaw in recent weeks, it was a surprise he did not get the nod ahead of the Argentinian, which either indicates he is still not quite in Mourinho’s permanent plans or 2 games in a few days is too much for Shaw in his recent comeback. I really hope it is the latter.
To be honest the game was not full of many highlights, Lingard was bright and busy for United, Matic and Herrera were solid if not spectacular and it all seemed too easy for them barring the very odd occasion of West Brom attacks that came to nothing. Mourinho eyed the normal Rashford for Anthony Martial switch but as he did, he saw his side’s lead slashed in half as a dangerous Chris Brunt corner caused havoc in the United area and for the 3rd time in as many games, Dave De Gea saw his net rippled from a set piece. Barry having the simplest of tasks from a few yards to give West Brom and undeserved lifeline.
The final 15 minutes seemed more erratic than what it it actually was in reality. West Brom pushed a few more men and time and again they looked to launch balls into the box in the hope another would land kindly for them. It didn’t and United picked up another 3 points and remain 11 points adrift of Guardiola’s side.
It was a more comfortable afternoon than it could have been for a side battling for relegation. West broom posed no real attacking threat due to lack of quality more than anything. Mourinho will rue the loss of Valencia that will overshadow the win. The good news is that Lukaku is scoring goals again and Paul Pogba will be back for the Leicester game and hopefully he can bring the return of a more fluid and attacking performance. United’s christmas period includes some potential banana skins and Mourinho would be delighted to reach the new year in second with an 11 point gap. He will be looking to City’s trip to Anfield in the new year as a possible loss of points and the turning point of the season but he knows anything can happen during this period and it is imperative his side keep finding 3 points, even if it is not the prettiest to watch.