September 29, 2018
Clubs cannot win the Premier League by the end of September but they can certainly lose it. And yet for Manchester United, the death or otherwise of their title challenge on a torturous afternoon at West Ham, felt like a footnote.
Arnautovic seals victory as West Ham compound Manchester United gloom
Their problems were written large on the open spaces of the London Stadium and on the back of last weekend’s home draw with Wolves and the Carabao Cup exit at the hands of Derby County at Old Trafford, not to mention the civil unrest between Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba, this was yet another low.
West Ham have stabilised after their losing start to the season, the win at Everton prefacing an encouraging home draw against Chelsea. The pre-match talk had been of recovery, of cautious optimism. But the truth was they did not need to play too well to ease past United.
Mourinho axed the out-of-sorts Alexis Sánchez and demanded a reaction from his stuttering team. What he got only intensified the sense that something is broken at Old Trafford and he does not have the tact or tactics to find the solution.
United’s biggest problem remains their inability to break down well-organised opposition defences; to pull them out of shape with front-foot football and that was once again in evidence. There was no coherent offensive strategy, they did not move the ball quickly enough and they sleepwalked to a defeat that looked on the cards from the moment Felipe Anderson scored his first West Ham goal in the early running.
The focus will inevitably fall on Pogba after another anonymous performance from United’s marque midfielder and Mourinho’s decision to substitute him on 70 minutes to ironic cheers from the home fans. But Pogba was by no means the only under-performer.
Mourinho’s 3-5-2 formation was still being unpicked by those in attendance when West Ham went in front; it had felt as if those in pale pink shirts were also attempting to get their bearings.
United were caught on their heels by the impressive Mark Noble’s slide-rule pass up the inside right channel for Pablo Zabaleta – Luke Shaw was ball-watching – and, from the low cross, Anderson executed a wonderful flicked finish with his trailing leg.
West Ham pressed at the outset while United were lethargic. Pogba had been beaten too easily by Andriy Yarmolenko in the third minute and, before Anderson’s goal, the home crowd had urged the defensive midfielder Declan Rice to have a pop from 35 yards, which seemed to reflect the feeling among them that there was nothing to fear from United.
“Options, just options,” Mourinho had said beforehand, after the teamsheets landed and his decision to exclude Sánchez had been revealed. The attacker was fit, he travelled to London and, on Friday night, he uploaded a smiling photograph of himself and some of his teammates to social media.
Presumably, that was before he got the tap on the shoulder from Mourinho. Or, on second thoughts, maybe it was after it. Sánchez has had precious little enjoyment on the field of late.
Mourinho included Scott McTominay on the right of a back three and there cannot have been too many United lineups over the years that boasted more height and physicality. The trade-off came in the lack of speed and movement. Mourinho spoke about options but where were they for the player in possession when United ventured into West Ham territory? It was all horribly one-paced and the frustration could be seen in some of Pogba’s reactions.
Arnautovic seals victory as West Ham compound Manchester United gloom
West Ham sat back on their 1-0 lead and United dug out a foothold, flexing their muscle, pushing them back a little. But they laboured to get in behind and the sum total of their first-half efforts was a Romelu Lukaku header that came back off the outside of the post from Ashley Young’s cross.
West Ham deserved credit for their grit and organisation, even if this was no rearguard action, and they went further in front after enjoying a stroke of good fortune. Issa Diop fluffed a free header from Anderson’s corner – where was United’s marking? – but the reprieve would be temporary. Yarmolenko stood Nemanja Matic up and jinked to the left before shooting. The ball deflected savagely off Victor Lindelof to loop in for an own goal.
Pogba had called upon United to “Attack, attack, attack” after the Wolves game and the travelling support chanted the mantra early in the second half. It had a plaintive edge. Mourinho made an attacking substitution when he withdrew Lindelof, introduced Marcus Rashford and switched to 4-1-4-1.
Rashford brought a dose of speed and directness while his goal was a beauty – a perfectly-timed back-heeled flick from Shaw’s corner. Seven minutes earlier, Marouane Fellaini had fully extended Lukasz Fabianski with a header. Was there a way off the canvas for Mourinho and his players?
The answer was no. West Ham had calibrated their gameplan perfectly and they flickered on the counterattack before Noble ushered in Marko Arnautovic for the third. The gap between McTominay and Chris Smalling yawned like a chasm as the West Ham striker ran through. Mourinho starred blankly into the distance.
Arnautovic seals victory as West Ham compound Manchester United gloom
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