Manchester United succumbed to an embarrassing 1-0 defeat at home to basement side West Bromwich Albion on Sunday, a result that crowned arch-rivals Manchester City as Premier League champions.
It was a dismal afternoon at Old Trafford, just a little over a week from the Reds’ stunning comeback victory over Pep Guardiola’s men at the Etihad Stadium, as they put in a lacklustre performance with little to no attacking intent. United went into proceedings in fantastic form, having won their previous five top-flight fixtures and seemed to be ending the campaign strongly. They were heavily backed to make that six in a row on Sunday, as they came up against a West Brom side rooted to the bottom of the table and set for relegation to the Championship, having won just three league matches all season.
United boss Jose Mourinho made just two changes from the side that secured last weekend’s memorable victory at the Etihad, as summer signing Victor Lindelof came in for Eric Bailly at centre-back, whilst Jesse Lingard dropped to the bench and replaced by Juan Mata.
In the Reds’ previous home match, against relegation-threatened Swansea City, Mourinho’s men signalled their attacking intent early on, putting their opponents on the back-foot straight from kick-off and effectively won the game by the interval, thanks to two first-half strikes. This time, however, that tempo was practically non-existent, as United looked bereft of ideas in the final third.
The hosts failed to create any clear-cut opportunities in the opening 45 minutes and had just a tame Paul Pogba effort and a couple of Romelu Lukaku chances to show for all their possession of the ball. West Brom, meanwhile, were more than content to soak up any United pressure and then venture forward on the counter-attack, as they looked assured on the ball with a confidence that belied their current league position.
The hosts had David de Gea to thank for not falling behind within the first quarter of an hour, as Jake Livermore’s placed effort forced the Spaniard to get down low to his right and tip the ball away. Despite their lack of creativity, United should have been awarded a penalty a few minutes later. Following some brilliant hold-up play by Lukaku, the Belgian picked out Ander Herrera, who was brought down in the box by Baggies’ veteran centre-back Craig Dawson, only for referee Paul Tierney to wave away the protests.
If that incorrect decision was meant to galvanise the hosts, it did not work, as they failed to trouble a West Brom side that has shipped in 52 goals, this term. Recognising his side’s lack of energy and impetus, Mourinho hauled off Herrera during the half-time break, bringing on Jesse Lingard in his place. That change hardly inspired the Reds, although Mata was unlucky to see his strike from outside the box drift past the post.
Midway through the second half, Lukaku thought he had given the hosts the lead, only for his fine close-range header to be denied by Ben Foster’s cat-like reflexes. A few minutes later, with United slightly turning the screw, Lingard’s effort from outside the box seemed destined for the back of the net, until a deflection turned it past the post – an incident that was missed by referee Tierney, who awarded a goal-kick.
Not long after, however, the unthinkable happened, as the Baggies took a shock lead. An in-swinging corner saw the ball bounce off the retreating Matic and fall kindly into the path of forward Jay Rodriguez – who had peeled off Lukaku – to head the ball into the net from a few yards out, sending the visiting fans, and undoubtedly all City fans, into raptures.
Despite there still being roughly 20 minutes left to play, United never really seemed like conjuring up a second consecutive comeback. Even the introduction of the pacey pair Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford failed to see the Reds up the pace and Foster remained largely untroubled in the West Brom goal. Almost immediately after falling behind, the ball fell to the highly-rated Frenchman inside the Baggies goal, but United’s number 11 horribly miscued his effort, which sailed over the bar.
The frustration and disbelief inside Old Trafford was palpable and in stoppage-time, Chris Smalling could only guide his header safely into Foster’s grateful grasp.
With just one point separating United and third-placed Liverpool, albeit having played one game less, the Reds must now turn their attention towards Wednesday night’s tricky trip to Bournemouth.