Did United simply make the most of West Brom’s deficiencies or has the penny finally dropped and has David Moyes realised that he has to build a system around his players to maximise their strengths, rather than shuffle his personnel around desperately trying to come up with the magic equation that will fit his archaic tactics?
The answer is perhaps somewhere in between, for while it’d be foolish to get carried away after a game against a side that has not won since New Year’s Day – after all, United were thought to have turned the corner multiple times this season – it’s also hard not to acknowledge the improvements on display today.
After the shambolic defeat in Athens 10 days ago, Moyes restored Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and Marouane Fellaini in midfield in place of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley – to the tune of “You Can Stick Your Fucking England Up Your Arse” the away end let everyone know what they thought about the petition to keep TClevz out of the England squad – and the results were there for all to see.
After a laboured first half during which United merely trudged along showing an all too familiar lack of momentum and attacking intent, the Reds produced some excellent football in the second half, with Mata, Januzaj and Rooney combining superbly, while Fellaini looked increasingly at ease in his midfield role and built on the positive performance he had delivered away at Crystal Palace.
Everyone’s favourite bog-brush impersonator had, in truth, been little more of a passenger in a first half throughout which United struggled to produce anything going forward, until Januzaj’s superb cross picked out Rafael, whose header was brilliantly parried by former United man Ben Foster.
The Brazilian full-back was at his marauding best today and one wonders if David Moyes has finally realised that a trio of attacking midfielders and two overlapping full-backs is an infinitely preferable option to having Valencia and Young patrolling the wingers to no avail, thus slowing down every attacking move and reducing the space available to the likes of Rooney and Mata.
Just when the first half looked to be dismissed as another turgid 45 minutes of football in United’s dismal season, Van Persie’s free-kick found Phil Jones’ head and the United centre-back powered an unstoppable header past Ben Foster, who should have then been sent off ten minutes later, after handling the ball outside the box.
Given that United get all the decisions, however, Jon Moss opted to forgive Foster’s mistake, showing the same ineptitude he then displayed in the second half, when he declined to send Robin Van Persie off, after the Dutchman lunged into a late tackle that should have earned him a second yellow card in less than 10 minutes.
We don’t know the truth about RVP and we probably won’t know until the season is over, but Moyes’ decision to replace him with Danny Welbeck was undoubtedly the right one, given how wound up the Dutchman seemed to be.
As Fellaini and Carrick grew into the game, so did United and Rooney soon put his side two up with a well taken header after a superb team move. Having exchanged passes with Mata, Rooney burst into the box at the far post, timing his run to perfection to meet Rafael’s cross and putting clear daylight between the sides, before Zoltan Gera forced the only meaningful save of David De Gea’s game with a low effort at the near post.
Shinji Kagawa replaced Januzaj, while Nemanja Vidic was given five minutes on the pitch in place of Rafael towards the end, but by then United had already added another one as Danny Welbeck curled his finish past Ben Foster after some excellent link-up play between Rooney and Fellaini.
The Belgian was excellent in the second half and his improvement allowed United to attack more freely and with more vigour also thanks to Juan Mata, who also grew into the game as he was finally allowed to roam through the middle, rather than being ousted out wide and one gets the feeling that Moyes must play this the team for the remainder of the season – apart from the second leg against Olympiacos, given Mata is cup-tied.
Fourth spot is long gone, but it’s refreshing to see that United can still play some good football from time to time. More of the same next week, please, David.