Louis Van Gaal will return to Manchester tonight with more questions than answers, as his side laboured to a scarcely deserved draw at the Hawthorns.
Leaving Radamel Falcao on the bench after his international excursions over the past week, United started like a team who had never played together before. If they had expected to dominate the game from the start, they were badly mistaken as West Brom camped in their half and swarmed over them like bees. It was to no one’s surprise when they took the lead. Andre Wisdom was allowed the freedom of the right wing to run into space with Shaw caught out of position. He teed up Stephane Sessegnon, who met the pass with a fine first time strike from 20 yards out, giving David De Gea no chance.
This woke Manchester United up a little, and they grew into the game but failed to cause West Brom a huge amount of trouble. Angel Di Maria looked the only person capable of unlocking a resolute West Brom defence, putting in a series of dangerous crosses which Boaz Myhill dealt with well. They still looked vulnerable at the back when Albion had the ball, often being far too open and allowing their players far too much space.
A change was made at half time, with Marouane Fellaini coming on to replace Ander Herrera, who didn’t look quite fully fit following his rib injury against West Ham. The change brought instant rewards as Di Maria’s cross found Fellaini, who used his formidable strength to hold off Pocognoli and beat Myhill with a fine finish from the edge of the box.
The goal put the Red Devils in the driving seat and for the next 18 minutes it looked like a goal was a matter of when and not if. A series of corners were won – with Fellaini being a nuisance in the box, finally showing the quality he clearly has – and West Brom were in panic mode. However, with Manchester United’s famously shaky defence there’s always a chance, which proved true when Chris Brunt threaded a majestic through-ball in to the in-form Saido Berahino, and when you’re the top scoring English player in the Premier League, not even De Gea can stand in your way.
The goal swung the pendulum back West Brom’s way and United’s level decreased somewhat. Alan Irvine had his side well organised and there was no real sign of a Manchester United onslaught. When Di Maria was replaced by Ashley Young, presumably due to tiredness having been playing in the far east during the international break, it seemed their main threat had gone.
One of the key aspects of Manchester United’s success over the past 20 or so years is the amount of late goals they score, owing to the fact they simply did not know when they were beaten – a quality that was sadly lacking in the David Moyes era. With just over three minutes to play, Falcao, who had earlier replaced Juan Mata, laid the ball off to Daley Blind who netted his first Manchester United goal in timely fashion, with a low drive into the bottom left hand corner from the edge of the area.
United pressed, but were unable to find a winner and in truth, both sides will be reasonably content with a point. While on paper a draw at the Hawthorns sounds like a bad result, it is worth remembering that Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton were all held there last season.
However, many United players were ineffective, with Shaw, Van Persie, Januzaj and Mata all virtually anonymous. West Brom, on the other hand, deserve credit for a solid and committed performance, while looking dangerous on the counter thanks to the threat of Berahino. The appointment of Alan Irvine raised a lot of eyebrows over the summer, even from their own fans, but after a difficult start they’ve picked up some impressive results and look a decent outfit.
United will have to defend a lot better against Chelsea on Sunday, or they could be in for an embarrassing afternoon. There is still a lot of work to be done for Louis Van Gaal.